Penn State bought itself a ticket to the Sweet 16 after defeating No. 16 Vanderbilt 2-0, but the unseeded Nittany Lions did not advance in the NCAA Tournament without a fight.
To start the match, the blue and white was pinned back into its own half.
In most games, the 12-2-1 Penn State squad takes control of proceedings right at the start. Against the Commodores, coach Erica Dambach’s side had a nervy opening half.
“I just think [Vanderbilt] got out to a better start,” Dambach said. “They put a lot of players on our backline, they started putting balls in there, they were pressing everything and they rattled us. It took us time to kind of settle into the game, find our stride.”
Vanderbilt opened the game with three center backs in defense. Playing with an extra central defender allowed the Commodores to deploy wingbacks to roam up and down the wide spaces.
The use of wingbacks not only gave Vanderbilt five defenders at times, but committing players to wide roles gave the SEC Tournament champions two extra players in attack that would sit in the space out wide regardless of where the ball was.
Penn State’s backline of four defenders was unable to evenly cover the entire width of the final third at any one time, so Vanderbilt coach Darren Ambrose was able to give his side an extra player while attacking on the wings.
Early in the first half, Penn State was forced to defend while it was overwhelmed out wide, allowing a high volume of crosses and shots.
During Vanderbilt’s dominance in the first half, senior captain Sam Coffey made it clear that despite the chaos and lack of rhythm in the early goings, her team did not panic.
“We just trusted each other, and we knew that even if they had the ball and they were attacking us more than we were attacking them, at a given moment, that we had what it took to turn things around,” Coffey said. “We knew every single person on that field and off the field was going to do their job and come through for us and that's why we won that game.”
The Nittany Lions were able to reach the halftime whistle without conceding. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Kat Asman finished the game with three saves and her seventh cleansheet of the season.
The Georgia native has not conceded a goal so far this tournament, totalling four saves in the tournament so far.
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Vanderbilt’s control over the game ended up being short-lived as the blue and white managed to string together passes and assert itself to eventually go on and win the match.
The Nittany Lions won the game with two second-half finishes and Dambach attributed this to defensive resilience while Vanderbilt was in control.
“I think that [Vanderbilt] put a lot of effort into that first 25 minutes,” Dambach said. “Obviously, when they came away with nothing, at that point, I think they lost a little bit of their edge.”
Along with Vanderbilt succumbing to frustration, the second half performance greatly improved upon the first because of Dambach’s halftime adjustments to the team.
The most obvious change was to Coffey’s positioning in the second half. The senior center midfielder played extremely wide, almost hugging the left touchline for the final 45 minutes.
“Technically, my position didn't change,” Coffey said. “I was still kind of floating around in the six/eight territory, but we knew that in the build that we could get them overloaded, especially at the left side.
“That would pose a lot of problems for them and, of course, our left sided players, our wingers, are just ridiculous.”
Dambach’s solution to Ambrose’s wingbacks was to create her own mismatches near the sidelines.
Penn State’s head coach noted she had to alter the shape of her team in order to give more security to fullbacks Ellie Wheeler and Maddie Myers.
“I think, especially in the build, having me come deeper, to kind of form like a five back and really overload them, make them make decisions,” Coffey said. “That would cause some of their midfielders to come over and track me, which then opened up a lot of space in the midfield. They didn't really know how to respond. That was a huge part of our game plan.
“I think it was something that was super effective for us, and was a totally smart tactical move by our coaches, as always.”
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