By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For Penn State, the Big Ten slate isn't just a portion of the schedule--it's a whole new season.
The non-conference section of the schedule is used to find out the team's strengths and weaknesses so that head coach Erica Dambach can fine-tune the issues and have the team playing its best soccer when it matters most.
That's why Dambach loves to schedule top-ranked opponents in the beginning of the year, each with different playing styles. Doing this exposes Penn State to all forms of play the team may see from conference foes during the year.
"We've had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us, so I don't think there's any team in the Big Ten that's going to give us something new," senior midfielder Haleigh Echard said. "I think we're going to take all the challenges that we had in the past six games and just bring them in to Big Ten play and come out firing."
Since 1998, Penn State has dominated the Big Ten. There's no other way to put it. The Nittany Lions have won or shared 18 of the last 19 conference regular season titles.
"[Conference opponents] circle this date on their schedules," Dambach said. "They come out and they play hard, and I think at this point we get everybody's best game."
Penn State is Goliath, but there's always a David lurking. This year, there may be a few Davids with a chance to slay the giant.
Rutgers is always one of Penn State's biggest threats on the schedule, and this year looks no different. The Scarlet Knights have started the season 6-0-1 and haven't conceded a single goal. They also lead the conference in goals scored with 20.
Rutgers has been a defensive juggernaut in recent years thanks to goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Murphy was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America Second Team All-American in 2015. She took a redshirt last season to play for the U.S. U-20 Women's National Team, where she was teammates with multiple Nittany Lions, but she's back in net for the Scarlet Knights this year.
Penn State will meet Rutgers Oct. 12 in Piscataway, NJ.
Wisconsin is another dangerous team that has the tools to challenge Penn State for a conference title.
The Badgers (6-1-0) are ranked No. 9 in the United Coaches Soccer poll, right behind No. 8 Penn State. In 2015 the two teams shared the Big Ten title with 8-2-1 records, and Wisconsin might be even more talented this season.
Offensively, youth is powering the Badgers early on. Three of their top four goal scorers are underclassmen. Wisconsin's leading goal scorer is sophomore Dani Rhodes, who has notched four goals so far coming off a freshman season in which she was named to the 2016 All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
The Badgers may be young up top, but they're experienced where it matters most--in the net. Goalkeeper Caitlyn Clem is a redshirt senior who ranks ninth all-time at Wisconsin with 18 shutouts. She has tallied 17 saves on the young season and is allowing 0.91 goals per game.
Penn State finishes up its regular season in Madison, Wis. against the Badgers in what could be a winner-take-all game.
Rutgers and Wisconsin may be the top dogs with the best chance to dethrone Penn State this year, but the Big Ten as a whole looks much more competitive and well-rounded than in year's past.
Twelve of the 14 conference teams come into Big Ten play with a winning record, and seven teams have five wins or more. Three Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 25, while Ohio State and Nebraska both received votes as well.
"I was really impressed with our conference during non-conference play," Dambach said. "It looks like there's going to be a lot of competition for the Big Ten championship this year, which is exactly what we want. We want to be challenged. We want to obviously play against the best and hopefully prepare ourselves as much as possible for an opportunity in November."
As for the Nittany Lions, they enter the conference slate coming off a 3-2 loss to Virginia. They sit at 4-2-0 on the year, but both losses came to teams ranked inside the top six.
Penn State will open up Big Ten play at home Thursday night at 7 p.m. against Northwestern. The Wildcats had their best Big Ten season to date last year, going 7-1-3 in the conference and sharing the regular season title with Penn State and Minnesota.
Whether the challenger is a team listed above, or another Big Ten opponent, the Nittany Lions know that it will be tough competition in conference play all season long.