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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State has gotten used to playing as a favorite in the Big Ten conference, but that changes for the first time in the team's history as we approach postseason play.
Sure, no one would be surprised if the Nittany Lions won three straight matches and locked up the Big Ten conference tournament title, but this season they'll have to do so as the No. 5 seed. Since the team was formed in 1994, it has never been worse than the No. 3 seed.
In 21 tournaments prior to 2017, Penn State went in to the tournament as the No. 1 seed 15 times. The Nittany Lions simply aren't used to playing as the underdog.
This year will also be the first time Penn State will play its first round game away from Jeffrey Field, as the squad will travel to Rutgers for its first round matchup with the No. 4 seeded Scarlet Knights on Sunday.
"Obviously it's great playing on Jeffrey Field. We love playing on Jeffrey Field, but this group needs to put all that stuff aside and just play right now," head coach Erica Dambach said.
Dambach has preached a James Franklin-esque, one-game-at-a-time approach heading into postseason play. It's easy to look ahead at the College Cup because that's where this team believes it can be this year, but Penn State is solely focused on Rutgers for the time being.
"It's really going to have to be one game at a time right now," Dambach said. "We're just focusing on getting better."
The Nittany Lions have sputtered a bit down the stretch after a strong start to the Big Ten slate. Penn State won just one of its final four games to drop from second to fifth in the conference. The team still had a chance to finish with a share of the Big Ten regular season title up to the final game against Wisconsin, but a loss dropped them back three spots.
One of the biggest areas of improvement heading into the tournament will be finishing opportunities up top. Penn State has created plenty of chances down the stretch but only notched three goals in the final four games combined.
The Blue and White were averaging two goals per game before that stretch.
Dambach said she's been encouraged with the recent attacking play and that it's only a matter of time before the offense gets its scoring groove back.
"I think that our ability to create attack has been really unlike any team that I've been a part of," Dambach said. "The quality chances we're creating right now--just the law of averages is in our favor, and now it's just a matter of that little bit extra to finish these."
The attack will be tested greatly in Penn State's first round match against the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers' goalkeeper Casey Murphy is one of the best in the business. She's allowed just five goals all season and has 14 shutouts to her name. Her goals against average of 0.263 per game is the second best mark in the country.
Penn State was unable to squeak one by her in the regular season matchup against Murphy a few weeks ago. The game ended in a 0-0 draw.
Dambach said the key to sparking the attack will start with the team's defense.
"Right now we have to tighten up some things defensively in order to create more attack," Dambach said. "The best attack is a great defense and how can we win the ball higher up on the field to try to break them down before they get organized."
Rutgers isn't too scary offensively, which is why one goal may be enough for the Nittany Lions on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights averaged less than one goal per game in conference play this season, but for the most part, they needed only one to win most of their contests.
It'll be a physical, defensive battle between two teams who don't much like each other, which is what the Big Ten is all about. It should be one of the more competitive first round matchups in the tournament.
Tagliaferri said she's excited for playoff soccer but that it will be business as usual.
"I think it's going to be just as tough as regular season games," Tagliaferri said. "The Big Ten is really competitive, and I think that helps us and prepares us for all these other games that we're going to have."
The Nittany Lions will look to take that approach this postseason, no matter the role they play.