(21) Virginia vs (12) Duke – 2:00 PM
The heat will be on in Charlottesville, as two clubs who came into the season with ACC title ambitions will try to avoid falling further behind at the halfway point of the league season. Both sides enter into Sunday’s clash with seven points from four league games, which leaves them tied for third at the moment but also six points behind early leaders Maryland, though the duo do have one game in hand right now. Defeat here though would almost assuredly rule the loser out of the title picture, even at this early stage of the game in the ACC. Few expected such a fate was possible for a Duke side that returned a vast percentage of last season’s league champions and national runners-up. The Blue Devils though have been plagued by defensive problems, also unthinkable going into the season, and kept just their third clean sheet of the season with Thursday’s 3-0 win over Clemson. It broke a string of five games without a shutout, with the club having conceded two goals in three of their last four going into Thursday. In large part, Duke’s been surviving without an in-form Kelly Cobb, with the Alaskan, struggling for fitness and effectiveness at the moment. Mollie Pathman’s been moved back into defense this season, mirroring her role at youth international level, possible in large part due to the emergence of some stars on offense. Known as Duke’s third banana up front last year behind Cobb and Pathman, Laura Weinberg has exploded into prominence this year, with eleven goals in eleven games, including four game winners. Her striker partner has been Kim DeCesare, a breakout star for Duke who likely would have more than just eight goals had she not been hobbled a bit by injury earlier in the year. Topping it all off has been the emergence of rookie Cassie Pecht, who with seven assists already, looks like a contender for Freshman of the Year.
The defense will likely be under most scrutiny on Sunday though, against a Virginia side still looking for its first real statement win. While the Cavs have brushed aside most of their overmatched opposition, their lack of a trademark win has left them struggling to break into the Top 16 of the RPI and a prime position for a national seed. The Cavs had to be most disappointed after Thursday, when they let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers against Maryland. Leading into the seventy-fourth minute, UVA would conceded three in a thirteen minute span to collapse to defeat. The Terps effectively shackled Morgan Brian, keeping her without a shot on goal and did just enough to keep Virginia’s offense in check to leave the Cavs with a 3-1 defeat. The loss will just add to the urgency of Steve Swanson’s club though, with Sunday a potentially vital game for the club’s season. Duke will be wary of forward Caroline Miller, who often saves her best for when the lights are brightest. Given some of Duke’s defensive displays so far this year, the senior out of Rockville will surely fancy her chances of leading Virginia to a much desired win against their ACC rivals on Sunday afternoon.
(3) Penn State vs (43) Minnesota – 12:00 PM
Welcome back to the watchlist, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers hadn’t exactly been doing their part to seal an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in a dreadful run of one win in four, but Minnesota got some of its groove back over the past week with two wins in the league to even their Big Ten record at 2-2-0. The Gophers have shown tantalizing glimpses of talent at times this season, such as in large stretches against San Diego State and early on in the opener against #1 Florida State, when they had the Noles down, 2-0. But Minnesota also stood at 5-5-0 after a 1-0 loss at the hands of Michigan and in very real danger of slipping out of the NCAA Tournament hunt. Obviously, things have changed somewhat now after two wins in a row, including an amazing fightback against Wisconsin from 2-0 down with a half-hour left to win 3-2.
Minnesota’s mettle will be fully tested on Sunday afternoon though, as they travel to Penn State to play the heavy favorites for the league title. The Nittany Lions have certainly been on fire early on in Big Ten play, scorching their four defeated opponents for thirteen goals as opposed to just two conceded. Illinois and Ohio State, thought of as potential title challengers by some, have been beaten aside with clinical ease, with the Buckeyes going down on Thursday by a 3-0 count. PSU’s offense is replete with weapons, including Tani Costa, Maya Hayes, and Christine Nairn, all of whom scored in the win in Columbus.
If there’s any club in the Big Ten with a chance of keeping pace with PSU’s offense though, it might just be Minnesota. The Gophers, of course, boast a lethal offensive weapon in Taylor Uhl, who has racked up twelve goals and seven assists in a blinding sophomore season thus far. The visitors will probably need more than her if they want to emerge victorious though, in a match where goals could fall like rain. The potential rewards for Minnesota are huge though. Victory could well mean a golden ticket back to the NCAA Tournament for Stefanie Golan’s side.
(33) Ohio State vs (34) Wisconsin – 1:00 PM
A familiar sinking filling might be creeping over Madison a few weeks into Big Ten play. Wisconsin started out last season’s Big Ten season with a win over eventual league champs Penn State but finished on a stunning slide that saw them miss out on the NCAA Tournament after having been tipped for a big season before 2011 began. The Badgers looked to have flipped the script early this season with six wins in seven and looked to be in fine shape for the NCAA Tournament going into league play. Instead, it’s been cause for alarm through four matches, with Wisconsin claiming just three points heading into Sunday. Of particular concern is the UW defense, normally a trademark of head coach Paula Wilkins’ Badger sides, which has given up multiple goals in all of the club’s league defeats. Thursday’s meltdown at Minnesota was something else though, as the club coughed up a 2-0 lead in the final twenty-two minutes en route to a 3-2 defeat. The Badgers used just twelve players in that game, meaning fatigue could be a worry going into Sunday’s game as well.
Ohio State will be looking to recover from a 3-0 setback at the hands of Penn State that essentially ended their Big Ten title hopes. It’s basically put the Buckeyes in a state of limbo at the moment. Wins over Missouri and Maryland have essentially wrapped up an NCAA Tournament spot already barring an epic collapse, but OSU looks to be far out of contention for a national seed at the moment. At this point, it might just be a matter of trying to ensure qualification for the Big Ten Tournament while getting as high a seed as possible without burning out legs before the postseason. The Buckeyes have been solid against the second tier of league foes thus far but hasn’t been able to put away a team that’s considered to be in the upper echelon yet. They’ll be aiming to do just that against Wisconsin on Sunday. Then again, if UW goes to 1-4-0 in the league, they might just also have to be lumped in with the collection of also rans in the Big Ten.
(32) Tennessee vs (8) Missouri – 1:00 PM
If there’s one side happy to say the back of the month of September, it might be Tennessee. The Lady Vols cruised into the month on the back of a 5-0-0 record, but their egos and, perhaps, NCAA Tournament ambitions, have been bruised by a trying month that has seen them go 2-3-2 to drive them slowly back towards the bubble. While nobody’s contending that UT is in deep trouble yet, taking seven points from their first five games in the league isn’t exactly what was expected at the beginning of the season, even under new management. Friday might have been a low water mark for the club this season. It wasn’t just that the Lady Vols were upset by Arkansas, it was that they went down to an Arkansas team playing a field player in goal after misfortune had struck. While UT racked up twenty-one shots, they only forced stand-in netminder Sam Wolf into five saves, a very poor ratio indeed. Part of the problem has been the health of Caroline Brown, the team’s expected scoring talisman, who has been hobbled by injury for much of the season. She has missed both of the last two games for UT, and her absence has been felt by the club.
The home side could really use her goalscoring talents on Sunday against SEC pacesetters Missouri. The Tigers are the sole perfect team remaining in league play after racking up SEC win #5 on Friday night against Georgia. Mizzou hasn’t exactly been blowing teams away in the league, but they have been confident and steady en route to a surge to the top of the table. Though there’s not really any massive wins on the resume so far, there’s been plenty to get the Tigers into the Top Ten of the RPI and in a great position to receive a coveted national seed. Against a very motivated opponent though, Missouri can’t back down an inch, as Sunday screams “trap game”, especially with title rivals Kentucky coming to town next Friday. Underestimating Tennessee would be a big mistake, but if Missouri can keep the wins coming on Sunday, they’d take another step towards a national seed and some SEC silverware in their maiden season in the league.
(53) Utah vs (18) Washington – 3:00 PM
Sometimes, graft has to win out over craft, and Utah most definitely gritted one out on Friday afternoon to top Washington State and get their NCAA Tournament hopes back up and running. The Utes really had no business still being in it for much of regulation, as Washington State kept knocking on the door to the point that most were wondering “when” the Cougars were going to score and not “if”. That they did late, netting in the eighty-second minute which seemed to mark the end for Utah on this afternoon. But the Utes found a way through Harley Spier’s header off a free kick to equalize with less than two minutes to play. It was all Utah after that, and the winner from Katie Taylor in extra time was more than deserved. Utah came into Friday’s game having suffered some serious setbacks in the past few weeks, having suffered through a damaging draw with Boise State before losing the league opener at Oregon State. Their at-large hopes in desperate need of a boost, they got it with that win over WSU. Completing a perfect weekend would get the Utes right back in the mix, but Rich Manning’s side doesn’t face an easy task on Sunday.
Washington overcame a little adversity of their own on Friday against Colorado. The Huskies controlled much of the first half en route to a 1-0 lead but were then up against it for much of the second half before conceding an equalizer with less than ten minutes to play. Instead of folding, Washington sprung a surprise of their own in extra time, getting a goal from rising midfield star Lindsay Elston to collect the club’s first Pac-12 points of the season. It was a vital victory that stopped a slide of three games without a win that had seen UW sink back down away from a potential national seed. With that momentum broken, Washington now will look to make it a perfect weekend on the road before heading back to Seattle for three games. Victory here wouldn’t guarantee them much, but it would be an important step back towards the all-important national seed that looked within their grasp in early September.
(26) Virginia Tech vs (17) Maryland – 5:00 PM
Surprise ACC leaders Maryland will try to keep their foot on the accelerator on Sunday afternoon as they try for their third straight win in the league while also aiming to extend their unbeaten streak to six games. The Terps looked to be heading for defeat on Thursday night at home against Virginia but popped up with three late goals, the first two off set pieces, to stun the Cavs and add further weight to their ACC title bid. Having already topped three of their closest competitors, along with a draw against Duke, a potential league crown is looking more and more like a possibility for a club most had pegged for mid-table.
But as impressive as Maryland has been in recent weeks, it’d be a mistake to overlook Sunday’s opponents. Coming in on a two match losing streak, Virginia Tech has slid a bit after beginning the season on a nine game winning streak. The losing run has the Hokies drifting away from a potential national seed and towards a more challenging path in the NCAA Tournament come November. Then again, with just three points from three games thus far, Virginia Tech may want to assure itself of a spot in the ACC Tournament first. The Hokies will have to get over last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss to Boston College to stand a chance of keeping the three points in Blacksburg though. VT looked well on their way to a home win last Sunday, leading into the eighty-fourth minute before being undone by two rapid fire goals from BC’s Stephanie McCaffrey. How the shellshocked Hokies come back in this one might well determine the course of their ACC season, with Duke and Florida State coming up next in the league.
VT may be having a fine season, but they’re also desperately missing the services of midfield talisman and club legend Kelly Conheeney, who has missed almost all of this season through a concussion. While mum’s been the word for her status for this showdown, her return could be a catalyst for an upset in Blacksburg. However, the Hokies shouldn’t be banking on that being the difference and will want to bear down and get the three points no matter who is and isn’t in the lineup. For the Terps, it’s all about avoiding a classic “trap” game and walking away with three more points and another big win to add to a list of many this season so far.