After Penn State’s dream start to the NCAA Tournament against Alabama State, the Nittany Lions’ eyes will turn to No. 14 Vanderbilt in their upcoming second-round matchup.
While the blue and white played the Hornets Wednesday evening, the Commodores were able to rest after being afforded a first-round bye via their No. 16 seeding.
All four Big Ten teams given a spot in the tournament were placed in first-round play-in matches, whereas three of the four SEC teams in the tournament were given an official seed to circumvent the first round.
Coach Erica Dambach said from year to year, the strength of both the Big Ten and SEC fluctuates.
To complicate matters further, Vanderbilt played a fall season ending in early November and then supplemented its season with exhibition matches in the spring. Meanwhile, Penn State has had a full spring conference slate.
“I'm not sure [a fall season is] necessarily a benefit,” Dambach said. “I think that remains to be seen in terms of whether or not it's better for these teams that have got some consistency through the spring.”
Vanderbilt enters the tournament with a 9-5-1 record, which is bettered by Penn State’s current 11-2-1 standings.
Despite losing more and winning less games than the Nittany Lions, the Commodores took higher seeding with a number of statement wins and a strong performance in the SEC Tournament.
During the 2020-21 season, Vanderbilt played eight teams featured in the United Soccer Coaches Poll sometime this season.
Against teams to have earned a top-25 ranking, Vanderbilt is 4-3-1. On the flip side, Penn State has played only two over the course of the Big Ten season, which resulted in a 3-2 loss to then-No. 19 ranked Rutgers and a 2-2 draw to Ohio State, which was unranked at the time of playing.
The Commodores went 4-4-0 during the SEC regular-season slate, but during their conference tournament, Vanderbilt went on a tear.
The eventual champion of the tournament, Vanderbilt scored 3.25 goals per game and only conceded four goals in as many matches.
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In that four-game span, the Commodores defeated three ranked opponents, featuring wins against Arkansas and Texas A&M, who currently rank No. 7 and No. 11 in the nation, respectively.
When Vanderbilt resumed its season in the spring, the Commodores struggled against ranked opponents.
In their final two spring matches, the SEC champions lost 3-2 in overtime against No. 25 Memphis and played to a scoreless draw with No. 8 Duke.
No. 14 Vanderbilt will be the highest-ranked team the Nittany Lions have played all season and the only squad to be ranked in the top 25 at the time of playing.
The blue and white will enter the game statistically superior, having scored 2.86 goals per game while conceding just 0.79 on average. The Commodores scored two goals per game and conceded 1.2 per match.
But Penn State’s advantages on paper will be overshadowed by Vanderbilt’s resume wins from the fall.
The Nittany Lions will enter the match at full strength and in good form after Wednesday night’s high-scoring victory over Alabama State.
Senior center back Kerry Abello returned to the starting lineup and sophomore Cori Dyke was able to move back to the center of midfield after deputizing for the injured Abello.
Despite her team’s lack of experience against ranked opponents, Dambach is heading into Saturday’s match with confidence it can succeed.
“Vandy is a good team. They're super athletic, they've beaten some good teams as well,” Dambach said after Wednesday’s game. “I think it's a good matchup. I think athletically, we'll have our hands full, but I do think it's a game that we can win.”
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