Penn State at Towson: Three things to watch

Towson is 13-5 in the all-time series between Colonial Athletic Association foes, but the sides have split the past four meetings. No. 11 Penn State (6-5) followed a three-game winning streak with a three-game losing skid, but the Nittany Lions have won their last two contests. Meanwhile, the Tigers (7-4) had a five-game winning streak end at the hands of No. 3 Massachusetts. With identical 2-1 records in the conference, this game is extremely important for both teams. Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson Saturday night.

1) Finding gaps in Penn State’s defense. The Nittany Lions are tied for 11th in Division I in defense, allowing just 8.1 goals per game, and only two opponents (No. 4 North Carolina and No. 7 Denver) have broken double digits against that unit. Sophomore goalkeeper Austin Kaut ranks sixth in save percentage (.592) and 12th in goals-against average (7.90) “It’s not just their defense,” Tigers coach Shawn Nadelen said. “They have a great goalie, and they do some things to utilize that. They play some zone and they play some tough man-to-man. They have a good faceoff guy which gives them opportunities on the offensive end and then their defense doesn’t have to play. So we have to understand what they’re good at, where they try to force us to shoot, where their weaknesses are. We’re watching as much film as we have, and we’re trying to figure that out and find out where the holes will be. And once you get through the defense, then they have one of the best goalies in the country that you have to get the ball by. So that’s kind of a two-headed monster.”

2) Using the man-up unit to power the offense. One avenue Towson can use to assist the offense is taking advantage of extra-man opportunities. The team ranks 11th in the country in man-up offense, converting 46.7 percent (14-of-30) of its chances. Utilizing that unit could help the offense find its footing and get Penn State, which allows a little more than three extra-man opportunities per game, on its heels. “I think we’ve got good personnel in good spots,” Nadelen said. “We’ve got some guys that can shoot the ball from the outside, and those guys have been able to cash in on the opportunities they’ve had. We’ve got a couple guys that can play off-ball and really make a man-down team work. So I think we have a decent balance on the man-up side. And we try not to complicate too much as far as running set plays. Like our offense, we try to allow the man up to flow and to have various opportunities to score.”

3) Putting a clamp on turnovers. Both teams rank in the top 25 nationally when it comes to protecting the ball. The Nittany Lions are tied for 13th with 14.1 turnovers per game, and the Tigers are tied for 23rd with an average of 15.0 giveaways. Not surprisingIy, the team that holds onto the ball will probably find greater success, Nadelen said. “That’s huge. I think this game is going to be a lot about possession time – winning it off the faceoff and maximizing your opportunities in the offensive end,” he said. “And on the defensive end, whether it’s saves or a ball on the ground, we have to take care of it and clear it out of our end. As in any game, the ball’s going to be valuable, but in this game where both teams are similar, the ball is going to be like a bar of gold.”

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