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Has Penn State Lacrosse Bounced Back?

Penn State is one of the hottest teams in Division 1 Men’s Lacrosse this season. The Nittany Lions are currently 4-1 and have climbed up to No.8 in the polls. They began the season unranked and many had questions about if the program was going to be able to bounce back from their successful 2019 and 2020 seasons.

The 2019 Penn State team was one of the most successful teams in Penn State Men’s Lacrosse history. The team was undefeated in the Big Ten and won the conference tournament. They cruised into Memorial Day Weekend before being defeated by Yale in the semifinals. Penn State had five players score 50 or more points that season. Grant Ament (30G, 96A) and Mac O’Keefe (78 G, 18A) played seemingly with the cheat codes on that season.

Before the season was shut down in 2020, Penn State was 5-2 and ranked No.7 in the country. O’Keefe and Ament were again firing on all cylinders. Looking at the last two seasons, you could make the argument that the shutdown altered the trajectory of the Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions had a disappointing season in 2021 (4-7) and a devastating 2022 (3-11) leading to the uncertainty of 2023.

2023 Quick Recap

The 2023 season has been positive already in Happy Valley. Penn State has two straight wins over Yale and Penn in the last two weeks. They have the opportunity to make a statement for themselves and the Big Ten when they travel to Ithaca this weekend to face Cornell. A third straight win and a respectable showing in the conference play could have the Nittany Lions back in the tournament come May. 

Using data from the last five years on the Penn State Men’s Lacrosse team from Lacrosse Reference, I wanted to dig into the offensive and defensive numbers to see if data can help explain the dip in 2021 and 2022 and what has helped lead to a resurgence of the team in 2023.

Offensive Analysis

Between 2016 and 2020, Penn State had a top 15 offense in the country. As the data on the line graph shows, 2019 (1st) and 2020 (5th) were Penn State’s best-producing units. Ament and O’Keefe were on another level playing with each other. Dylan Folds, Nick Spillane, and Jack Kelly all helped contribute to Penn State’s dominance.

Ament graduated after the 2020 season and was selected as the No.1 overall pick by the Archers in the PLL. With Ament gone, the Penn State offense went from having the 5th to the 49th-best offense in the league. His teammates also experienced similar drops in production as the table below demonstrates. 

 2019 (18 Games)2020 (5 games)2021 (11 games)
Mac O’Keefe78G, 18A28G, 8A29G, 6A
TJ Malone27G, 6A16G, 7A25G, 18A
Dylan Foulds43G, 13A12G, 4A15G, 10A
Jack Kelly42G, 9A12 G, 3A6G, 4A

Penn State moved up to 38th in 2022. Will Peden had the most points on the season (11G, 22A) and Mac Costin was the only Nittany Lion to score more than 20 goals. The 2023 season is again showing signs of improvement and has Penn State ranked 24th in the country and just over 30% in offensive efficiency so far in the young season.

Defensive Analysis

Unlike the offense, the defense has never really been the calling card of Penn State. Between 2016 and 2022 the defensive efficiency numbers fluctuated between a low of 27.6% (2020) and 31.7%. A stronger offense was able to overcome those deficiencies prior to the pandemic. The Nittany Lions were not able to make up for it during the last two-year’s power outages. This year the defense ranks 11th. Sophomore Jack Fracyon has stabilized the Nittany Lions between the pipes. Defenseman Alex Ross (8CT, 7GB) and LSM Ryan O’Connor (5CT,10GB) along with midfielder Grant Haus (3CT, 12 GB) have allowed Penn State to play with an edge this season.

Saturday, Penn State travels to undefeated Cornell. Cornell is led on offense by CJ Kirst who is off to an electric start and has a very strong and formidable defense. Faceoff is at noon on ESPN+.