On paper, Penn State’s offense is like any other high-scoring offense. Sophomore attackman Grant Ament (16G, 16A) plays the role of Batman. Freshman attackman Mac O’Keefe (NCAA-best 4.14 goals per game) stars as Robin. And the Nittany Lions have a face-off specialist in Gerard Arceri (68.8%) who allows them to play a lot more offense than defense.
When you watch the film, the six-on-six movements are far from conventional. Penn State plays a pick-heavy offense, but their picks aren’t announced beforehand -- they’re spontaneous. Plenty of teams run picks at X that resemble spread pick-and-rolls in the NBA; Penn State’s picks are more comparable to combination routes in the NFL.
The action may start with one on-ball pick, but that quickly snowballs into a series of shallow cuts and pass-down pick-downs until, eventually, the defense has a lapse in communication.
That’s awful defense from Harvard, but it’s made possible by Penn State’s patience. Many teams would settle for that initial shot down the alley or the ball-carrier on the pick behind the cage (Nick Aponte) would push for his own shot. Instead, Kevin Hill carries to X and his own unselfishness is immediately repaid by a heads-up Aponte.
Persistent picking wears a defense down -- it can also manipulate a defense and change the shape of the field. Watch where this first up-pick is set (between the hash marks and the numbers) relative to the second up-pick.
That’s on the hash marks. Subtle difference, but it makes Matt Florence much more of a threat coming off that pick. He’s enough of a threat that Penn leaves Mac O’Keefe -- who, if you haven’t heard, is definitely not the dude you want to slide from -- to stop Florence.
O’Keefe’s game is as complete as any lefty finisher in the country. He has soft hands inside, he can stretch the defense from 15 yards, and he needs very little time or room to release his shot. He hasn’t initiated much yet, but he’s shown glimpses with the ball in his crosse that indicate that aspect of his game isn’t too far away.
As a picker for Ament, he has been able to capitalize on poor approaches. It’s easy to forget that O’Keefe is only 19 years old when he fools sliding defenders with moves like this fake-to-face dodge.
When you shoot 47.5% like O’Keefe, then your gravity impacts the game even when the ball isn’t in your stick. Penn State will deploy O’Keefe as a picker above the cage where asking the on-ball defender to fight through a pick will almost always result in a shot. But the alternative -- switching, and in turn leaving O’Keefe open in the middle of the field -- is too scary! Defenders may hedge slightly, but in the end they are glued to O’Keefe. Here, it allows Florence to run free to the cup.
The picks have produced more than enough offense for Penn State so far. But in May with the game on the line, you need an alpha attackman to give the ball to and ask him to draw a slide. Go down the line, and every champion has had theirs: Steve Pontrello, Connor Cannizzaro, Jordan Wolf, Justin Ward, Steele Stanwick, Ned Crotty, Kenny Nims.
Who carries the ball out of a timeout with the game on the line for Penn State? Grant Ament. As a freshman Ament buried 20 goals and dished out 34 assists. This year, his game is still as potent and as balanced. Opposing defenses look to turn him into a scorer, and when you watch what happens when teams slide, it’s hard to blame them. Among players with 15 or more assists last spring, Ament’s 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio was fourth-best in NCAA behind Towson’s Ryan Drenner (3.0), Stony Brook’s Matt Schultz (2.75) and UNC’s Luke Goldstock (2.1). Even when Ament isn’t credited with the assist, he starts some of the prettiest plays you’ll see. The tic-tac-toe ball movement here is so damn beautiful.
On the flip side, here’s why teams have to slide to Ament. The kid creates crazy amounts of separation with his stutter steps and quick changes of direction.
There’s no shortage of weapons on this offense. O’Keefe, Ament, Nick Spillane (13G, 7A), Hill, Mike Sutton (9G, 5A), Aponte, Florence, Dan Craig (5G, 2A) and Ryan Keenan (4G, 10A) all average at least a point per game. Arceri gives this offense (sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency per analyticslacrosse.com) plenty of opportunities.
The question for Penn State is on the other end of the field. Currently, their defense is 69th (of 71 Division 1 teams) in adjusted defensive efficiency. That won’t cut it in conference play against Johns Hopkins (2nd in adjusted offense), Maryland (8th), Rutgers (18th), Ohio State (22nd) and Michigan (28th). The Nittany Lions need to tighten up their slide packages -- or possibly start taking the air out of the ball -- if they want to make a run at Memorial Day Weekend.