NCAA Tournament Preview – First Round – (1) BYU vs Utah State

Friday, November 9 – 8:00 PM EST

(1) BYU (18-1-1, 7-0-1, 1st WCC) vs Utah State (13-2-6, 6-0-2, 1st WAC)

If familiarity breeds contempt, then BYU will loathe their first round draw, as it sees a Utah State side that held them in check in large part in the regular season meeting in Logan, a 1-0 win for the Cougars. BYU has been one of the success stories of the season in 2012, with Jennifer Rockwood’s side going from missing last year’s tournament to winning a #1 seed with a banner year. The Cougars have flattened opponents in large part with a multi-pronged assault going forward and a take no prisoners defense. The latter will likely be replicated by Friday’s opponents who boast no small defensive chops of their own, having three-time WAC Defensive Player of the Year Natalie Norris among their ranks. The Aggies’ Achilles’ heel, as seen in their defeat against BYU, is the lack of a true top scorer to lead the line going forward. It might be the biggest hurdle to a potential upset in a match that could be far closer than some anticipate. Despite that, BYU should get a strike from one of their multiple weapons up front and advance. Just.

Prediction: (1) BYU 1 – 0 Utah State

(Team Capsules after the jump.)

BYU

How They Got Here – By generally stuffing anyone and everyone in their path. After opening up the season with a narrow win over UC Irvine and a defeat at deadly rivals Utah, few could expected the Cougars to slash through everyone in their path. Long Beach State, Colorado College, Penn State, Washington, Pepperdine, and Portland were among the victims as BYU conquered almost all in their path. A vibrant and exciting offense, a tenacious defense, and no shortage of motivation after last season’s disappointment have made the Cougars one of this year’s true success stories in the college game.

Best Result – BYU made a dangerous Penn State look decidedly average in a 3-1 win in Provo that has to rank among the club’s all-time best wins on home turf.

Worst Result – The Cougars’ arsenal of attackers fell silent in Salt Lake City, unable to put one past Utah despite out shooting the Utes by a 4:1 ratio, dropping a match to their rivals for the first time since 2007.

Who’s The Boss – Famously stoic on the bench, Jennifer Rockwood has become one of the faces of BYU athletics after building its varsity program from the ground up. A rarity in that she only played soccer at club level (BYU only offered club soccer in her playing days), Rockwood has nonetheless grown into one of the college ranks’ most respected and successful coaches. Nine league titles and eight conference tournament titles speaks volumes, but Rockwood is still searching for a College Cup appearance that would seal an even greater legacy after coming so close in 2003. After missing out last season, Rockwood’s bred a hunger and urgency in this year’s club that has spurred them to great heights thus far.

Players To Watch

Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall (CB) – Towering center-back runs like a gazelle and jumps like one too, making her deadly as a target on set pieces inside the opposing box. Can hit a ball with real venom as well, as evidenced by some highlight reel goals. Will be critical defensively in stopping physical forwards.

Carlee Payne Holmoe (CF) – Spearhead of the club’s 4-2-3-1 system, Payne Holmoe hasn’t quite reached levels of stardom once perceived possible after phenomenal freshman season but still a player of fine talent. Not a truly prolific goalscorer but provides great linkup play to the attacking band of midfielders. As aggressive and combative a forward as there is in the college game.

Erica Owens (GK) – Has done exceedingly well to replace veteran McKinzie Olson in goal. Capable of electrifying saves and has been key in goal in numerous big wins thus far. Decision making still suspect at times as she’s still a first-year starter, but upside is enormous with one more year of eligibility after 2012.

Michelle Murphy (AMR/AML) – Rookie winger has been one of the nation’s top freshman attackers in 2012. Incredibly efficient attacker, with eight goals in twenty shots and a 60% shot on goal rate, tops on the team among attackers by some distance. Will likely be key in taking heat off Payne Holmoe in attack.

Strengths – From 1 to 11, the Cougars are a match for just about any team in the country. In particular, the segmented midfield has been fantastic so far, with Rachel Manning and Cloee Colohan a tremendous disruptive influence, while the attacking band of Murphy, Jessica Ringwood, and Jaiden Thornock have terrorized defenses all season long. BYU’s best advantage may be South Field though. At altitude and with over four thousand fans at times, the Provo soccer haven is one of the college game’s most intimidating venues. On their home pitch, BYU can beat anybody in the country.

Weaknesses – BYU doesn’t have a great history in the NCAA Tournament as of late, which shouldn’t affect this year’s side in theory, but it’s still got to be gnawing in the back of Rockwood’s mind at the very least. Rockwood’s side could also be accused of having many very good attackers but no real great ones, though it’s hardly bothered them so far. The Cougars aren’t the deepest side in the world either, with injuries to Niki Fernandes and Colette Jepson robbing them of a lot of their attacking depth. Finally, if the Cougars are forced on the road, it’ll be interesting to see how they cope, as they aren’t renowned for being the best away side.

Will Lose When – The attackers have an off night in front of goal while BYU faces a side that can run with them for ninety minutes.

Upside – Final Four

Downside – Second Round

Famous Last Words – It’s been a little while coming, but BYU and Rockwood may have their best team in nearly a decade, one that’s more than capable of causing a shock or two on the way to a potential berth in the College Cup. It’s hard to argue against the Cougars’ record, especially at home. Potent offensively and stout defensively, BYU looks to be a team of few glaring weaknesses. Given that much of their path to San Diego should be going through Provo, the scales definitely tip in BYU’s favor, meaning the Cougars have a more than meaningful shot of still being standing on the final weekend of the season.

Utah State

How They Got Here – With no shortage of grit and determination. Last season’s WAC Tournament champs showed they were no pushovers immediately by beating Utah in the opener, but some odd results in other non-conference matches tempered expectations a bit. USU still showed they had potential though, drawing with Washington and then narrowly losing to BYU near the end of non-conference play. Two scoreless draws in the beginning of the WAC season seemed to put their title hopes to bed, but they came back to win their final six matches to pip Denver to the title. They’d shock those same league rivals in the WAC Tournament final to earn a second straight trip to the Big Dance.

Best Result – The draw against Washington in Logan showed these Aggies can compete with just about anyone.

Worst Result – The defeat to Northern Colorado in late August was a bit baffling considering where the two teams ended up come the end of the season.

Who’s The Boss – Captain at Canisius in her playing days, Heather Cairns paid her dues as an assistant at New Mexico and Creighton before making the move to Utah State in 2003. It’s been a decade of steady progress in Logan, but the Aggies have certainly been repaid for their patience with the results of the last two seasons. Would have likely been in demand following this season but was wisely given a contract extension through the 2016 season at the beginning of the month.

Players To Watch

Natalie Norris (D) – Arguably one of the greatest players in WAC history. Three-time WAC Defender of the Year leads up a tenacious Aggie defense. Big, physical player will be key in stopping BYU’s marauding attack. Has been an occasional offensive threat in the past but has been more limited this season. Team’s designated penalty taker was 3-for-3 from the spot this year.

Mari Miyashiro (M) – Hawaiian packs a fair amount of offensive punch into a slight frame, standing at just 5’1″. Was in and out of the starting lineup as a rookie before hammering down a place full-time last season despite missing some time through injury. Converted forward made a big breakthrough this season, leading the team with six assists and adding four goals in the process.

Ashlyn Mulford (GK) – Late bloomer was scarcely used for three seasons, starting just two matches and only played sixty-six minutes last year. Has been an absolute revelation for the Aggies this season though, starting all but one match for USU in their double winning season. Needs a big game for any chance of a Utah State upset.

Jennifer Flynn (F) – Teams top scoring threat in all likelihood. Modest season in 2011 saw her score five times, but she’s been the focus of the offense this season, leading the team with seven goals despite missing a pair of contests. With so few big time scorers on the roster, pressure will be on the junior to produce if Aggies are to pull an upset.

Strengths – As you might expect from the above, Utah State possesses an offense of no small talent. The Aggies gave up just two goals in eight WAC games and eleven overall. Norris is one of the most accomplished defenders at this level and could boost her stock further with a strong performance here. Additionally, being familiar with BYU and altitude isn’t going to hurt them in the least.

Weaknesses – That defense has largely covered for an attack that doesn’t possess any real stars after the club lost much of its attacking impetus through graduation last season. Nobody on the club has more goals than Flynn’s seven, and the Aggies had trouble putting goals past the tougher clubs on their schedule this season.

Will Lose When – A club is able to battle its way through their fierce defense while shutting down the limited options in attack.

Upside – Sweet Sixteen

Downside – First Round

Famous Last Words – Could the Aggies be a potential Cinderella in the making? They’ve got tournament experience from last year, are facing a familiar opponent, and have a defense that should allow them to stay in games at the very least. The problem with Utah State is their offense, which lacks a true spearhead to put fear into opponents. If USU can just scrape some goals together though, they’ve got a puncher’s chance, not just of one win, but multiple victories, which should be music to the ears of Aggie supporters.

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