Penn State currently sits at 2-0 and a #8 national ranking, with wins over Michigan (11-6) and #11 Denver (15-12). Since the Nittany Lions are on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now as a potential dark horse D1 contender, we want to know if this is a fair assessment?
Does PSU truly have the horses to make a Top 5 spot, or a National Championship run, a reality?
Let’s break the Nittany Lions down, position by position, to see where their potential strengths, and possible weaknesses, lie:
Penn State is in great hands in goal. Austin Kaut is one of, if the not THE, top goalies in the country. He was consistent and strong against a powerful Denver offense, racking up 10 saves and allowing 12 goals in 60 minutes of play. Against Michigan he only allowed 6 goals, and made 12 saves. He is excellent off the save, a leader on defense, and as good of a backbone as a team could hope to have. Strong goaltending? Penn State has got it in a big way. Kaut is a potential 1st Team AA in 2013, and he is a definite difference maker.
All Photo Credits: Steve LaCrosse
The PSU defense does not overwhelm you with size. They have some bigger boys out there, but of their starters down low (Michael Richards, Tyler Travis, and JP Burnside), none is heavier than 190 pounds. In fact, Richards, Travis, and Jack Donnelly all weight 170 or less! Kessler Brown gets a lot of run at LSM and he weighs in at 180 pounds. Stephen Bogert, another good LSM, weighs 165. None of these guys are over 6’1″ tall, and many are only around 5’10″.
While PSU doesn’t throw their weight around that much, they can run for days, and are blessed with plenty of speed. Their poles play a harassing style of lacrosse, and can run with opposing offensive speedsters, and cover all over the field. They stay on the hands for the most part, but will also throw some pretty serious slap checks to dislodge the ball or turn a player back. If a defender does get beat, they chase down the dodger well, and wait for the stick to be exposed. Then they crash down with the double. It’s aggressive, and it forces the offense to make quick decisions.
The PSU defense is a group of players that can force an offense to stretch out, and they play well together, allowing their teammates to extend further if needed. Penn State’s defense is organized chaos, filled with athletes. They have created a system that utilizes their skill set instead of trying to mimic other successful defenses that stay at home a bit more. They might give up some goals, but they have a great keeper to fall back on, and they just might create some scoring chances of their own. PSU’s defense is perfectly suited for the 2013 rules.
Penn State’s midfield is solid, but right now it looks to be the weakest part of the team, at least offensively. Of course looks can be deceiving, but we’ll get to that later. Defensively, the Nittany Lion midfield looks a lot like it’s long poles in that the guys are smaller on average, but fast, and very well conditioned. They cover out, and players like Michael Richards will even throw checks with a shortstick, using their speed to recover.
The above approach may result in some good looks on cage for the opposition, but it also generates transition, as Denver found out, and once again, with Kaut in cage, risk becomes a little more attractive.
When the ball is turned over, and or a save is made, PSU’s midfield reacts well, breaking out quickly, and spreading the field wide to find an open man. Once the middies get the ball in their stick, they push the pace nicely, move the ball to the attack, and then continue their runs, creating unsettled situations with their speed and conditioning, and allowing the attack to go to work.
As the season progresses, the PSU midfield could emerge as a real scoring threat, and I really like Tom LaCrosse to lead the way in this department. He is shifty, has a high lacrosse IQ, and managed to get off almost 50 shots last year as a sophomore. If he can be more consistent with his shooting, he could put 20 goals up this year easily. Kyle Zittel could also emerge as a good threat to complement Nick Dolik’s ability to get his hands free.
Right now, PSU is looking like a three man wrecking crew on offense. Shane Sturgis, Jack Forster, and TJ Sanders looked fantastic against Denver, and all three seemed to be more than happy to dodge on the Pioneer longsticks. Sanders and Sturgis both have 8 points in two games, while Forster sits at third on the team with an equally impressive 7 points. Sanders and Forster have 1 assist apiece, so 21 of the 23 total points these attackmen have scored have been goals.
When you watch PSU play, Sturgis, Sanders, and Forster all play a relatively similar style. They can all carry, can all dodge, and can all score. They’re deadly from close in, and play well with each other, always creating space and confusion. Speed is there, and all can run their poles for an entire game.
Statistically, opponents may start to realize that these are the guys scoring goals, and not dishing the rock, and the defensive approaches could change. If they do, I have a lot of confidence that this attack trio can make the transition, and start setting each other up more and more, as well as setting up their middies. The goals may dip a bit, but expect the assists to pick up the pace.
Right now, PSU’s weakest area is probably special teams. The PSU man up unit is 1 for 7, and that has to improve, especially with the talent they have on offense. On man down, PSU is allowing opponents to convert at a 3 for 7 rate, and that also has to improve for PSU to be considered a contender.
When it comes to face offs, PSU has done well, winning around 60% of the draws. With Carraro leaving the game early for Denver, it’s hard to say if this winning rate will continue. A very bright spot for the face off unit was their wing play, and this does give me hope that PSU will be competitive all year on draws. Even when Denver got the ball, they were harassed by the PSU poles, and this created some turnovers, and never let Denver run transition as well as they might like to. Overall, PSU once again used their athleticism and speed to create confusion.
If they can do the above on man up and man down, we might have a real contender!
Jeff Tambroni has a history of making teams competitive quickly. He did it at Cornell and he’s done it at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are playing fast, team lacrosse, and they are well conditioned, and diverse players. They might look more like a soccer team getting off the bus than a football team, but that doesn’t mean they can’t run their way to a lot of wins.
Could PSU make the Final Four this year? Honestly, I don’t see any holes that can’t be filled, so I don’t see why not. Keep an eye on Penn State Men’s Lacrosse all year on GoPSUSports.com.