By: Tim Hackett

Northwestern defeated Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament Thursday.

No wait. That doesn’t quite do it justice.

Northwestern dominated Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament Thursday. The game was tied for one minute and 29 seconds. From then on, Northwestern never trailed. Selena Lasota led the way for the Wildcats with three goals, three assists, and three ground balls, while Kaleigh Craig tacked on three goals of her own. Ten other Northwestern players found the back of the net in a 20-5 romp. With the win, Northwestern advanced to the semifinals of the Tournament, where they will take on Penn State. Additionally, the win clinched a .500 record for Northwestern, ensuring their eligibility for the NCAA Tournament. And with their immensely tough schedule, it seems likely that the ‘Cats would be selected for the Tourney regardless of their result Friday.

Northwestern has done a very good job this year of dismantling inferior teams, scoring at least 20 goals four times this season against teams with a combined .442 winning percentage.  But, as the Wildcats already know, Penn State is not a bad team. Ranked No. 13 in the nation by Inside Lacrosse, the Nittany Lions defeated the Wildcats 17-13 in their only meeting this season in State College on April 23. Northwestern actually led that game 13-12 with 9:15 to go, but the Nittany Lions rattled off five straight goals in the final nine minutes to capture the win.

Penn State is truly a three-dimensional team. The Nittany Lions are good in the midfield: Penn State features two players, Jenna Mosketti and Madison Carter, who rank in the top 40 nationally in draw controls per game. The are solid defensively: they cause 10.81 turnovers per game, 11th-best in the nation, and feature reigning Big Ten Goalie of the Year in senior Emi Smith. But perhaps most remarkable is their offense: five members of the Nittany Lions have scored at least 25 goals on the year, led by Madison Cyr’s 47 goals and 63 points. They have players who can pass, too: In addition to her 27 goals, junior Steph Lazo has 30 assists, good for 19th in the country.

Having this balanced attack is critical to Penn State’s success, and makes life tough for opposing defenses. Often defenses will key in on an opponent’s best attacker, like many have done to Northwestern’s Selena Lasota throughout the year, and put a faceguard on her, effectively eliminating her from the run of play. Defenses could try to do that by faceguarding Cyr, but that still leaves four players that are more than capable of putting the ball in the cage. Opposing defenses have to be aware at all times to have success against Penn State’s five-headed attack.

But what about Northwestern? Do they have any chance? Absolutely. The Cats’ offense is absolutely on fire right now, averaging 17.5 goals over their last seven games. Northwestern is up to a 12.82 goals per game clip, one of the 20 best scoring rates in the country. Penn State, despite its typically-successful aggressive defense, does surrender a lot of goals: 56 teams in the country allow fewer than Penn State’s 10.44 goals per game.

The key for Northwestern? Win the midfield battle. Seven of Northwestern’s nine wins have come when it wins more draws than the opponent. Controlling the midfield allows an offense to get rolling. If the ‘Cats can get through Penn State’s pressure defense, they stand a chance of winning the match.