Through the first nine games of the season Penn State has bounced in and out of the NCAA top 20.
This weekend the 6-3 Nittany Lions will open up Big Ten play inside the top 20, sitting at No. 18 after handing previously top-ranked and now-No. 4 Denver its first loss of the season.
The final five games of the regular season will feature only conference opponents for the Lions.
With the conference tournament only being a four-team competition, the Lions will need a strong conference record to qualify from the six-team field. The tournament is only set from conference records so the Lions’ three wins over ranked out of conference opponents won’t help their case.
Making the field won’t be easy, as perennial national powers and top-10 ranked Maryland and Johns Hopkins will likely take up two of the spots, but the Lions are the only other top-20 team in the Big Ten with Rutgers on the outside looking in. The Lions will open conference play full of confidence after competing with and beating the nation’s best just days ago. The fundamental aspects of the game that had cost them previously worked to their advantage against the Pioneers.
It started in the faceoff X.
“It starts with Billy Lombardi , he just competed so hard [Saturday] but also so intelligently,” coach Jeff Tambroni said. “You look at Denver as a team and they are good in all facets, but you look at them in the faceoff X and over the last two years they have been the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country. When [Billy] didn’t win he did enough to allow it to be more of a three versus three, get other people involved…Billy Lombardi’s combination of conviction and intelligence really I would say that was the pivot point of the game today, none of the other stuff happens without Billy Lombardi and the faceoff wings.”
Lombardi and the Lions’ faceoff unit went toe-to-toe with a Pioneers faceoff unit that has gone over 65 percent on the year and won 13 of 28 faceoffs . If the Pioneers approached 70 percent like normal, the Lions may not have been able to down the top-ranked team in the nation, as the Pioneers deadly offense would have had the ball far more often.
Success in the Big Ten is going to start at the faceoff X and if the Lions went toe-to-toe with the best, they should be able to go over 50 percent against the rest.
“I think we just beat a very good team doing simple things,” Dan Craig said following the game against Denver.