Johns Hopkins enjoys a 57-28-1 advantage in this series and has won the last three meetings. But prior to that, Virginia had won six straight contests, and the Cavaliers’ 86 games against the Blue Jays equal the most the program has played against one opponent.
No. 10 Johns Hopkins (5-1) suffered its first loss of the season when Syracuse held onto a 12-10 decision on Saturday. Drew Kennedy did what he could for the Blue Jays in that loss, setting career highs of 21 faceoff wins in 25 attempts and 15 ground balls. The junior ranks first in Division I in ground balls per game (10.7) and third in faceoff percentage (68.4 on 93-of-136).
No. 8 Virginia (6-2) opened the season with six consecutive wins, but has dropped two straight to then-unranked Cornell on March 8 and then-No. 13 Notre Dame on Sunday. The Cavaliers have traditionally been one of the best teams at picking up the ball off the ground, and that has not changed this season. They are tied for third in the nation with an average of 38.0 ground balls, and six players have scooped up at least 20 ground balls.
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Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
1) Johns Hopkins on defense. Not only did Syracuse tag the Blue Jays with their first setback, but the Orange also became the first opponent to break the 10-goal barrier this year. After the game, coach Dave Pietramala criticized the defense’s lack of communication and refusal to slide, but said the unit has been much improved during this week’s series of practices. That will be imperative against the Virginia attack duo of Mark Cockerton and James Pannell. Cockerton, a senior, leads the country in goals (28) and points (38), and Pannell, a sophomore, is right behind him with 24 goals.
“For us, you’ve got to make sure that you can’t just let them run wild and you’ve got to limit their opportunities,” Pietramala said of Cockerton and Pannell. “The problem with that is, if you just look sat them and say, ‘We’re just going to focus on those two,’ what about [junior midfielder] Ryan Tucker? What about [senior midfielder] Rob Emery and [sophomore midfielder] Greg Coholan? So for us, it’s been more about our defense against their offense. I don’t think we can afford to say, ‘Well, it’s just these two guys, and that’s it. We’re going to make those four other guys beat us.’ Those four other guys have shown that they’re pretty darn good. And based on the way we performed against Syracuse, we need to get back to team defense.”
2) Virginia on defense. When a team is averaging 13.3 goals on offense, it’s easy to overlook the defense. The Cavaliers have surrendered 10 goals or more to seven opponents, but was bailed out by the offense. However, when the offense scored just nine times in back-to-back losses, the defense suddenly becomes exposed. The unit has been criticized for experiencing mental lapses and failing to communicate, though Pietramala said his respect for Virginia hasn’t changed.
“I think they’re a very athletic defense,” he said. “I think their close defense has done a very good job. Like the rest of us, they’re trying to put the pieces together. … I’ve got to look at us and how they’re going to defend us. They may very well decide that they’re not going to slide a lot. They’re very athletic. They may decide to zone a little bit and follow Syracuse’s model. So we’ve had to prepare for a number of different things.”
3) Virginia on man-down defense. The unit’s aforementioned generosity has extended to man-down situations. The Cavaliers have killed just 44.8 percent of those opportunities (13 of 29), which ranks 53rd in the nation out of 67 teams. That would seem to bode well for Johns Hopkins, which is tied for the ninth-best mark (50.0 percent on 7-of-14) among man-up offenses. Pietramala has repeatedly emphasized the need for the offense to find ways other than six-on-six situations to manufacture goals, and capitalizing on extra-man opportunities is one path to that objective.
“For this team to win, we have to find other ways to score,” he said. “Week to week, it’s going to be different ways. Against Syracuse, we got two goals off the ride, and we got two on extra-man. We didn’t play great half-field offense. … This team at Johns Hopkins – maybe more than any other year that I’ve been a part of – we’ve got to be willing and able to find different ways in each game to win those games, and man-up on special teams is one of those ways.”