(1) Penn State vs (3) Duke – 7:00 PM EST
(Penn State Rotation [3-5-2]: Probable Starters – McNulty, Chapic, Church, Hovington, Hurd, Nairn, Rodriguez, Evans, Weber, Schram, Hayes. Likely Reserves – Costa, Garcia, Persson)
(Duke Rotation [4-3-3]: Probable Starters – Campbell, Jandl, Anasi, Koballa, Haller, Lipp, Kerr, Pecht, Weinberg, DeCesare, Pathman. Likely Reserves – Doria, Cobb)
-Opting for three at the back can be a dangerous game for many clubs, but Penn State’s made it work for much of the season. Part of that’s down to their explosive offense in no small part though, as some of the club’s defensive deficiencies have been masked by the fact that the club has been able to score at will against most opponents. While their offensive prospects look rosy against a Duke defense that has also struggled at times, the defense isn’t going to get a free ride in all likelihood, as Duke’s attack is more than capable of lighting up the PSU defense if the Nittany Lions are off their game. In the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils have gone with a lineup that’s largely resembled last year’s, with Mollie Pathman up front as opposed to playing at left-back, where she soldiered on in the regular season for Duke this year despite the club not being able to establish much of a defensive rhythm. The results have been undeniable, as Duke has poured on the goals in the Big Dance. PSU defending straight up with 3 v 3 would be suicidal in either a zone or man-marking system, considering the Blue Devils have Kaitlyn Kerr and Cassie Pecht in midfield ready to overload the final third if necessary. It means that PSU’s wingers (potentially Emily Hurd on the left and Mallory Weber on the right) will have to do a good job of tracking Pathman and Laura Weinberg down the flanks to cut off service to DeCesare and some of the club’s midfielders in the center. Weber, who seems much more comfortable going forward, in particular could have her hands full with Pathman, who naturally has the defensive chops to stymie the rookie going the other way as well. I’d guess that Pathman is far more likely to stay wide and try to whip balls into the area, with Weinberg more favored to cut inside and give Duke other targets besides DeCesare in the box.
-Worries defensively also extend to Duke’s side of the equation, with Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram to stop. The Blue Devil defense has struggled at times this season, though it’s hard to really get a good grasp on them since they moved Pathman back into the attack. Wins over Loyola (MD) and Miami (OH) told little, while the club did a lot of bending but little breaking against Virginia with the brave lineup choice. Natasha Anasi, Duke’s best defender by a mile, figures to get the task of shutting Hayes down, and the two’s tussles could be the best matchup of the night. That likely leaves Schram to Libby Jandl, and with the junior attacker having not scored in her last eight, Duke will fancy their chances in shutting her down. With two layers of protection against Penn State’s wide attackers, Hurd and Weber, Duke will also hope they can shut down wide service to the center forwards. Weber’s a more direct threat to goal but could be bottled up by two players capable of playing at left-back, while Hurd’s a decent threat to cross it in but doesn’t score very much. PSU’s best hope of avoiding things bogging down up front may be getting Hayes and/or Schram to work the channels with lateral movement to drag defenders out of position, opening up space for Christine Nairn’s forward runs from midfield.
-As mentioned above, Duke’s defense of the flanks could be key to victory, as they both try to neutralize the threat of Weber, who has had an outstanding season, while also cutting off service from Hurd. The Blue Devil full-backs are quite likely the club’s weak point personnel wise, as can be judged from the shuffling head coach Robbie Church has done with first Pathman starting there before switching tacts and putting last year’s left-back, Maddy Haller back to the starting spot there. With no full-backs barreling forward to worry about, the wide threat from PSU is mitigated a bit, and Haller should have good cover in front of her, with Pathman a more than competent defender on the left to try and shut down Weber. Weinberg’s nowhere near as strong a defender but has the stronger full-back, Erin Koballa, backing her up. With PSU’s wide threats likely to face a hard go of it, it’ll be more critical than ever for the club’s forwards to try and stretch play laterally with their movement.
-Unless Weber and Hurd get sucked into the center of the pitch from out wide, it looks like a fairly stock 3 v 3 battle in the middle of the pitch. Both clubs generally seem to work with two very offensive minded midfielders in the center of the park with a nominal holder behind them. Penn State’s Christine Nairn is obviously the top threat on her side in this zone and will be eager to run into space the forwards can open up in front of her. Duke will have to close her down effectively as well, with her shooting from range a deadly weapon for the home side. The lanky Nicole Lipp figures to get the first crack at marking Nairn, though she doesn’t use her size as effectively as Duke probably would like. Lipp and Gilda Doria have both seen time at the defensive midfield spot, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Doria inserted into the game quickly by Church if Lipp is struggling. If Duke is trying to protect a lead, Lipp and Doria could play behind Kaitlyn Kerr, with Cassie Pecht moving up front and Pathman moving to left-back. Which of Kerr and Pecht picks up PSU’s Raquel Rodriguez and how well they do it should also be vital. The Costa Rican is more valued for her set piece deliveries, which have contributed to many of her ten assists this year, but she’s versatile to operate as an attacking or defensive midfielder. Against the more offensive minded Kerr and Pecht though, she may be more inclined to stay back to help Maddy Evans shield the back three and prevent late runs and service vertically to the Duke forwards. Collectively, there’s a lot more offensive than defensive intent among these two teams in this zone, meaning play could be wide open here.
-Neither side figures to dip too deeply into their benches unless the game turns into a blowout. Duke probably won’t go much further than Kelly Cobb and Doria. Cobb, who was such a revelation as a rookie, has missed most of this season with injury and international duty and hasn’t been in great form when she’s seen time. She’ll likely spell a forward up top, but it’s not clear what, if anything, Duke will get out of her. Doria could see as many minutes as Lipp in midfield and is a two-way threat with eleven assists to her name this season and could also stabilize the midfield if it gets too unbalanced with Pecht and Kerr operating there. Injuries have robbed Tani Costa of much of her explosiveness, but the Hawaiian is still a viable option off the bench for PSU, with six goals to her name, including two winners. Corey Persson played defense in a pinch with PSU struggling with injuries earlier in the year but can also operate in midfield. Her lack of height makes her a liability in defense against Duke’s style though, so it’s more likely she subs in as a midfield reserve in this one. Likewise, Bri Garcia can play in either defense or midfield and will likely be used where she’s needed by Walsh in this critical game.
-Penn State has home advantage and will be hoping for a big crowd, but Duke has the experience at this stage and will likely use that to their benefit. The Blue Devils also know despite the pressure facing them to get to San Diego that PSU also faces great pressure considering their #1 seed and the type of season they’ve had thus far. I’m not sure how much defense is going to get played, with both of these clubs set up to score and score often, but this could be the most crowd pleasing of the four quarterfinals. It’ll probably be a tight one, but given how Duke handled Virginia and PSU’s problems with putting Michigan away, I’m tipping the visitors for the slight upset.
Prediction: (1) Penn State 1 – 2 (3) Duke