Nearly a year and a half since falling to Stanford, the eventual 2019 national champion, in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Penn State is ready to begin another quest for its second national title.
To much surprise, the 10-2-1 Nittany Lions were not named a top-16 seed in the 48-team field during Monday’s selection show and were handed an at-large bid for their 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
So instead of an anticipated first-round bye, coach Erica Dambach’s team will take on Alabama State April 28 and with a win, would face No. 16 Vanderbilt in the second round May 1.
Penn State’s first-round match against Alabama State will be the first ever meeting of the two sides.
The Hornets finished first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with a 8-2-2 overall record in 2021.
Alabama State earned an automatic bid through its SWAC Tournament title.
Should Penn State defeat the lower-seeded Hornets, Vanderbilt would serve as the Nittany Lions’ first real test in the tournament.
Another automatic qualifier from a conference tournament championship, the Commodores finished the fall SEC regular season with a 9-5-1 overall record.
A pair of consecutive victories would likely set up a date with No. 1 Florida State May 5 in the tournament’s third round should the Seminoles defeat the winner of the first-round contest between Elon and Milwaukee.
Florida State has spent the entire spring season at the top of the national rankings after posting a perfect 11-0-0 record in the ACC’s fall season and claiming its seventh conference tournament championship.
The last time Penn State took on the Seminoles came during the 2018 NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, in which Florida State prevailed with a 1-0 win and went on to win the national championship for the second time in its history.
A showdown between the Nittany Lions and Seminoles could be an early contender for match of the tournament, as it would see arguably the top-two players in the country in Penn State’s Sam Coffey and Florida State’s Jaelin Howell go head to head.
The blue and white can surely give Florida State a run for its money, but the Seminoles, who averaged over three goals per game in 2020 while conceding just six total, will prove a tough hurdle to overcome.
At the same time, if there is any reason to believe the Nittany Lions can pull off an upset of the nation’s top-ranked team, it could lie in the fact that Florida State has not played a competitive match since November.
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Penn State, fresh off its 11-game spring regular season, could benefit from recent competition despite its uncharacteristic 1-0 defeat at the hands of Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals a week ago.
The Seminoles’ likely won’t encounter any difficulties in their first competitive match in nearly six months, as neither Elon nor Milwaukee will provide much of a threat to knock off the tournament’s top seed.
Though the Nittany Lions would represent a significant jump in competition, as Florida State perhaps wouldn’t have expected to meet a team that was ranked No. 4 in the nation just a week ago in just its second match of the tournament.
All factors considered, coach Mark Krikorian’s team could be prone to an upset, but it may not be worth betting on just yet.
While it may have directly led to Penn State’s unseeded status in the tournament, the defeat to Iowa was an aberration.
The Hawkeyes became the first team to shut out the Nittany Lions in 2021, as Dambach’s squad scored a Big Ten-best 35 goals through 13 matches.
Of course, Penn State can claim three of the conference’s top five goal-scorers in Ally Schlegel, Frankie Tagliaferri and Coffey.
There is no doubt Penn State boasts one of the premier attacking units in all of college soccer, which will be crucial to any success in the NCAA Tournament, but its defense could end up a fatal flaw.
Despite conceding just 11 goals in 2021, the Nittany Lions are yet to face a statistically superior opponent.
Their young and inexperienced back line has bent at times, and only seldomly collapsed, although it could easily find itself exploited by an elite adversary such as Florida State.
The game-winning goal conceded to the Hawkeyes resulted from a well-constructed counter attack that succeeded in breaking through Penn State’s back line that had been caught without numbers.
Barring the unexpected, it seems reasonable to predict a second consecutive third-round elimination for the Nittany Lions. Although considering their dominant 10-2-1 showing in 2021, nothing feels quite out of reach.
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