With just two games remaining in Big Ten play, Penn State finds itself in a position to make big strides in a very competitive conference, which currently includes three ranked teams.
The Nittany Lions upset fourth place Wisconsin on Sunday and with that, catapulted themselves into fifth place in the Big Ten.
The top four seeds in the Big Ten tournament earn the luxury of hosting their respective quarterfinal matchup.
Sunday’s win was exactly what Penn State needed to keep their hopes of hosting a quarterfinal alive, and is something that coach Jeff Cook has stated as one of his goals since the season began back in August.
Even if the Nittany Lions win their final two games of the season, cracking the top four is out of their control due to the fact that they don’t play any of the four teams ahead of them in their remaining games.
But even if they have to go on the road for the first round of the Big Ten tournament, this team is getting hot at just the right time of year. Recent wins against Stony Brook and Wisconsin mark the first time that Penn State has won two games in a row this entire season.
The Nittany Lions haven’t conceded a goal in their last three games – the last time goalkeeper Josh Levine had to pick the ball up out of his net was against Indiana back in September.
And now that captain Dani Marks is back in the starting lineup regularly, the defense has looked at top form. Since coming back, Marks has been named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, the third time this season a Penn State player has won the award.
Brandon Hackenberg has been one of the best ball-playing center backs this season, and wingbacks Brennan Ireland and Ryan Gallagher have also been solid as of late.
The back line has helped the offense feel comfortable in keeping a larger share of possession, as they have been able to stop counter attacks consistently and retain possession in a quick and clean manner.
This back line can keep a clean sheet against any Big Ten team the way that they’re playing currently.
Josh Levine has also made a name for himself in net this season with very consistent performances. Last season Levine only played between the posts in about half of the team’s games while he has started all but one this season.
Levine leads the Big Ten in saves per game as well as save percentage. The rest of the team has to be much more comfortable knowing the last line of defense is one of the best that the conference has to offer.
The main question mark for Penn State this season has been offensive production. Only Ohio State has scored less goals throughout the year out of all Big Ten teams, and the top goal-scoring Big Ten side has scored 17 more goals than the Nittany Lions.
But as of late, Penn State has shown flashes of potent offensive ability.
Against Stony Brook, the side put in three goals, its most in a single game this season. Against Wisconsin, freshman striker and leading goal scorer Jeremy Rafanello got back on the scoresheet for the first time since all the way back in the beginning of September, before Big Ten play started.
Cook emphasized the importance of a threatening attack through possession after Sunday’s win against Wisconsin, so I expect Penn State to step it up in that department through the final stretch of games.
With all of these things coming together, the Nittany Lions are in a prime position to make some noise in the Big Ten tournament, which kicks off Nov. 3.