Maryland (5-7, 0-4) has really been scuffling as of late, so the postponement of their matchup with Michigan State, which was scheduled for last Sunday, might turn out to be a blessing. It will take quite a turnaround if the team is going to make a significant climb in the conference standings. If the team can begin to play better, having more games left to play could certainly be a positive.
This weekend, the Terrapins travel to State College for a Thursday matchup with Penn State and head to Columbus for a Sunday game against Ohio State. Both games will be streamed on BTN+.
The Nittany Lions (8-2-2, 3-1-1) have struggled with consistency after being very highly regarded in the preseason. They were pegged as the sixth-best team in the nation in preseason polls and were expected to run away with the Big Ten title. Penn State does possess a 2-0 win over a Stanford team that was ranked second in the country at the time, but they recently lost to #14 Minnesota and tied with unranked Nebraska, pushing the Nittany Lions into a four-way tie for second in the conference, two points behind the Golden Gophers.
Penn State is a balanced team, not leaning on any one player or position to carry the rest of the team. The defense has improved their play as the year has worn on. They haven't given up multiple goals in a game since their fourth game of the season, after doing so twice in those first four games.
The team is rather young defensively, so taking some time to find their footing is understandable. Ellie Jean and Kaleigh Riehl are both freshmen who have started every game for the Nittany Lions, which is to be expected considering they were both ranked as top-ten recruits in the country last year by TopDrawerSoccer. Alongside them is sophomore Elizabeth Ball, who started all of last year, and redshirt sophomore Brittany Basinger, who made the All-Big Ten Freshman Team in 2013 before missing all of last season.
Fifth-year senior Britt Eckerstrom starts between the posts for the Nittany Lions, as she has done since the 2013 season, and her experience helps balance the youthful backline playing in front of her. The most highly-touted senior on Penn State isn't Eckerstrom, though, it's forward/midfielder Raquel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was the 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and she hasn't stopped racking up accolades since then. She won the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year award last season, and was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watchlist before this season. Rodriguez has been listed as a forward for much of this season and she has produced a goal and three assists.
Senior Mallory Weber and sophomore Frannie Crouse are tied with a team-high six goals, with Weber adding another team-high four assists to lead the team in points. Sophomore Megan Schafer also has five goals, showing the balanced attack Penn State has utilized in 2015. Another sign of that is the shot totals; four Nittany Lions have at least 20 shots but nobody has over 25.
Penn State is a very talented team who may have under-performed a bit thus far in 2015. Maryland, who lost this matchup 1-0 last season, will hope that Penn State still hasn't put it all together, although the Nittany Lions seem to have bounced back from their loss to Minnesota and draw with Nebraska with a 5-1 win over Iowa and 3-0 victory against Northwestern in the last two weeks.
The Buckeyes (6-3-3, 1-2-2) have had a bit of a confusing, up-and-down season to this point, and sit in 10th in the conference. They were picked to finish 9th by the coaches in the preseason, but how they arrived at their current position is intriguing.
Unranked entering the season, Ohio State stormed out to a 4-0-1 start, including an OT win over No. 8 Florida, and Ohio State rose in the rankings as the No. 15 team in the nation. They've gone just 2-3-2 since then, at least partially due to a more difficult schedule, and have dropped out of the top-25.
Ohio State's situation at goalkeeper is murky, with freshman Devon Kerr beginning to take more and more minutes from redshirt junior Jillina McVicker, who began the year as the starter. Kerr earned her first career start in the Buckeyes' last game against Illinois and played the entire game. Kerr's stats are superior to McVicker's and Kerr may have won the job outright over the past handful of games.
Junior defender Morgan Wolcott, who was named to the Big Ten Players to Watch list before the season, started the first six games of the year but is currently missing time with an injury, her third significant injury in the past four seasons. That has forced the Buckeyes into a bit of a scramble for defenders, though there hasn't been much of a drop-off in terms of defensive production.
Ohio State's leader on offense is Nichelle Prince, who leads the team with 14 points thanks to five goals and four assists. Two other Buckeyes have four assists, but nobody else has more than three goals on the season. Prince is a junior who had a very productive freshman year, but was hampered by injury last season.
Other than Prince, who also has a comfortable lead in shots taken, sophomore midfielder Nikki Walts has been the most effective offensive weapon, with a pair of goals to go with four assists. Walts was on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team last year, and has already improved her offensive production over her 2014 season. Another sophomore, Sammy Edwards, has also scored twice for the Buckeyes, and is second on the team with 30 shots.
At this point, the Terrapins desperately need to get over the hump and earn a point in conference play. The sooner they do so, the better their chances of turning the season around. Earning a point or three against Penn State would be a great way to build confidence on top of, of course, earning points. Ohio State is a winnable game, but this team hasn't exactly been inspiring confidence with their play as of late.
The stakes are high; if Maryland can't put it together this weekend, their hopes of postseason play could be all but over.