Lacrosse: What To Watch For: No. 2 Northwestern braces for Big Ten battle against No. 18 Penn State


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Graduate student attacker Izzy Scane tries to retain possession through contact by a Notre Dame defender on Feb. 16. Scane tallied four goals and four assists against Stanford Sunday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Following No. 2 Northwestern’s 20-goal shellacking of Stanford on Sunday, the Wildcats (10-1, 2-0 Big Ten) will test their toughness in a Thursday tussle against No. 18 Penn State at Ryan Fieldhouse.

While NU carries a 10-game win streak into the matchup, the Nittany Lions (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have won their past five contests — pummeling Ohio State 13-3 Saturday.

With the Cats firmly entrenched in the race for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seed, the game provides a chance to build on an impressive resume with another ranked win. On the other hand, a Penn State upset would send shockwaves throughout the collegiate lacrosse landscape, shooting coach Missy Doherty’s team up the national rankings.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s crew holds a 21-7 advantage in the all-time series and will enter its final faceoff in Ryan Fieldhouse as the heavy favorite.

Here’s three storylines to follow as NU aims for its 11th consecutive victory against Penn State Thursday.

  1. Elite scorers will go toe-to-toe

While both squads feature an array of talent, viewers should devote attention to some star-studded individuals in particular. Two of the top-three goal scorers in the Big Ten will line up on opposite ends of the field Thursday night: graduate student attacker Izzy Scane and Nittany Lion midfielder Kristin O’Neill. 

Scane leads the conference — and the nation — with 54 goals, averaging an absurd six goals per game. O’Neill sits third in the conference with 36 goals, and she will be crucial to her team’s success in the draw circle.

Both All-American markswomen are sure to generate significant defensive attention, as Scane and O’Neill each have the innate ability to capitalize off slim margins, meaning a momentary defensive lapse will likely end in a goal.

Since the odds appear stacked against Penn State, O’Neill must consistently deliver when her number is called for any chance of a Nittany Lion win.

  1. Two opposite forces will collide in a battle of offense versus defense

The Cats’ attack seems unstoppable as of late. NU has scored 13-plus goals in every game this season and holds the top-scoring offense in the country, tallying 198 goals in 11 outings. 

The potent pack of Scane, graduate student attacker Hailey Rhatigan, senior attacker Erin Coykendall and freshman midfielder Madison Taylor can each score at will, forming a formidable big four that strikes fear in any opposition.  All signs point toward another banner performance from Coykendall — the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week that posted a dazzling 16-point week.

However, the premier attackers in the conference — and the NCAA as a whole — may just meet their match in the Big Ten’s number one scoring defense. Penn State has conceded just 90 goals in 11 games, while leading the conference in forced turnovers and ground balls per game.

Spearheaded by defender Ellie Hollin, the scrappy Nittany Lion defensive unit prides itself on causing errors and breaking up attacking momentum. 

Slicing through the opposing defense may pose a challenge for the Cats, but Amonte Hiller’s diverse scoring options and talent across the board gives NU the upper hand. 

  1. The battle for Big Ten supremacy 

It’s early in the conference slate, but the winner of Thursday’s matchup will gain sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Currently, three teams are undefeated in conference play: the Cats, No. 10 Maryland and Penn State. 

With just four conference tilts remaining, there is little room for error in the race for the top-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. If NU wins, a decisive regular season finale against the Terrapins would likely be the only obstacle in the Cats’ path to an undefeated regular season in conference. 

Possessing home field advantage and all the momentum, NU certainly likes its chances to triumph over the Nittany Lions. But a hungry opponent led by a dynamo like O’Neill could complicate matters.

The winner of Thursday’s meeting will enter the driver’s seat of the conference regular season title, leaving the opposition with a steep mountain to climb at the cusp of postseason play.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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