WHO: Penn State Nittany Lions @ Maryland Terrapins
WHAT: Men's soccer B1G Conference game
WHERE: Ludwig Field, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
WHEN: Sunday, October 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm Eastern
If Maryland men's soccer fans were inclined to circle games as must see contests, three games would likely have comprised the preseason list:
Michigan State: This would have been a featured game not merely because it was Maryland's first ever home Big Ten conference game, but because MSU came up one win short of reaching the College Cup in 2013 making this an early season game with possible B1G title implications. The result: Michigan State 1 - Maryland 0
Georgetown: This game would be for local bragging rights and although the Terrapins had technically neve lost to the Hoyas, it was Georgetown that derailed Maryland's march toward the 2012 College Cup advancing 4-3 on penalty kicks. The result: Georgetown 1 - Maryland 0
Penn State: One aspect of the appeal of this game is, of course, simply Maryland versus Penn State. However, Penn State is the two time defending Big Ten champion and with this game coming as the teams enter the final third of the season, it looked in the preseason to be a game that could have title implications. This may be true for the Nittany Lions. For the Terrapins, it's a game that could hold the key to determining whether they will reach the NCAA Tournament for a 21st consecutive year.
What's a Nittany Lion?
Let's get one thing straight: Biologically, the Nittany lion doesn't exist. Penn State's website concedes that "The Nittany Lion is essentially an ordinary mountain lion (also known as a cougar, puma, or panther)." Penn State adopted the mascot in 1907 nearly three decades after the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in central Pennsylvania.
So, how did this choice of Nittany Lions arise? Again, according to Penn State's website,
"The Nittany Lion as Penn State's mascot originated with Harrison D. "Joe" Mason '07. At a baseball game against Princeton in 1904, Mason and other members of Penn State's team were shown a statue of Princeton's famous Bengal tiger as an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field. Since Penn State lacked a mascot, Mason replied with an instant fabrication of the Nittany Lion, "fiercest beast of them all," who could overcome even the tiger. Penn State went on to defeat Princeton that day. Over the next few years, Mason's "Nittany Lion" won such widespread support among students, alumni, and fans that there was never any official vote on its adoption."
Here's another interesting note. According to the official athletics website, in 1887, the student body voted to adopt dark pink and black as the school's official colors. However, after several years of exposure to the sun, the pink faded to nearly white and in 1890, the colors officially changed to the familiar blue and white.
Nittany Lions on the pitch
As noted above, Penn State won the 2013 Big Ten championship. (Note: In most sports, the regular season champion is considered the B1G conference champion. The postseason tournament determines the automatic NCAA qualifier.) The Nittany Lions finished with and overall record of 13-6-2 and were 5-1 in conference play. They were not terribly successful in the postseason losing in a shootout to Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and dropping a 2-0 decision to New Mexico in Albuquerque in the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite having won back to back conference titles, the preseason coaches poll picked Penn State to finish fourth. The principal factor influencing this decision may have been that four of the nine field players who started at least 16 games for the Nittany Lions had graduated. Entering Sunday's game at 10-0-1 and 4-0-0 in conference play, Penn State has clearly exceeded those expectations.
While they are not among the elite of the elite in scoring, Penn State's 1.91 goals per game average is 25th in the NCAA so they are a solid offensive squad. However, they truly stand out on the defensive side of the ball. They have given up a mere three goals in 11 games and the overall goals against average (GAA) of 0.27 is college soccer's second best.
Their stingy defense holds opponents average just over 11 shots per game. In an indication that few of these are particularly good looks, only about one in four shots reaches the goal where senior goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton has turned his 6'6" frame into a veritable wall.
Players to Watch
Connor Maloney, #5, sophomore, forward. Maloney, a member of the 2013 All Big Ten Freshman Team, is Penn State's leading returning scorer. Morphing from a facilitator to a finisher, Maloney has scored eight goals thus far in his sophomore season six more than he registered as a freshman.
Mikey Minutillo, #10, redshirt senior, forward. Named to the preseason Players to Watch list, Minutillo has not disappointed in his final campaign. The redshirt senior is second in goals (5), assists (4) and points (14). Between them, he and Maloney have taken 37 percent of Penn State's shots this season.
Andrew Wolverton, #1, senior, goalkeeper. Wolverton's season has been nothing short of spectacular. In ten games, he has yielded only two goals. He enters Sunday's game with a 0.21 GAA and a nearly unfathomable .946 save percentage.
Given the relative proximity of the two universities, it should come as no surprise that the Terps and the Nittany Lions have a significant history. Sunday will be the 39th meeting between the two programs and each has won 19 of the previous 38 encounters. As noted in our mid-season review, the Terrapins are a team searching for their identity on the offensive end of the field and in desperate need of finding ways to score goals. Although they picked up a quality win Wednesday night over a VCU team that sits more than 30 spots above them in the most recent RPI, the Terps still failed to produce a goal in the run of play despite playing more than three-quarters of the game with a player advantage and playing that same stretch against VCU's second string goalkeeper after starter, Garrett Cyprus, received a red card.
Maryland's struggles finishing goals matched against the second stingiest squad in college soccer isn't a combination that cooks up much optimism for Maryland fans. Those same fans can hope that head coach Sasho Cirovski, returning from his one game suspension, has used that time to find the right recipe that will spice up the scoring chances and lead to enough goals for the Terps to pick up a much needed win.