Who: Notre Dame at Denver
Where: Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium (Capacity - 2,000) - Game is already SOLD OUT
When: Today, 1pm MT
Watch: Pioneer Vision
In any sport, there is going to be a team that starts off highly ranked, stumbles early in the season and spends the rest of the year proving themselves worthy of their initial ranking.
Enter this season's Denver Pioneers.
On paper, this is an absolute scary team. Their attack unit rivals Notre Dame's in talent, efficiency and goals. Their midfield unit, like Notre Dame, has Senior leadership but a slew of youth, their defense is veteran-laden and their goalie is a returning starter who was a brick wall against the Irish a year before.
Denver started the year off ranked #1 in the nation and the ranking was well-deserved. The Pioneers are a formidable team on any level. They're also revolutionary when it comes to how they approach the game.
Let's start with their offense, which is the lacrosse version of the Oregon offense in football. Check out this article on their offensive system. Denver doesn't believe in a vanilla, systemic offense. They run multiple sets and plays from each set. Almost everything is run from the midfield, which leaves attackmen open for feeds. They're also trigger happy, averaging an absurd 40 shots per game.
On attack, the Pioneers return all three of their starters from last year. Leading the way is Wesley Berg, who is basically their Matt Kavanagh. He has great vision, quickness and an uncanny ability to find the net. Zach Miller is another threat on the perimeter and his 9 assists on the season show that he is adapt at finding shooters. Jack Bobzien started the season with a 6 goal outing against Duke, though he hasn't played since. One would think that would relieve some of the tension that the Irish defense would face, but it only makes it worse. Maryland transfer Connor Cannizzaro, who was the ACC Freshman of the Year last season, transferred in the off-season to play with his brother Sean at Denver. His presence has been immediately felt, already scoring 12 goals and notching 12 assists to lead the entire Pioneers team in points. As a point of reference, in the three contests that Maryland faced the Irish, Cannizzaro scored a hat trick in the first meeting and scored one goal each of the next two contests. The Irish have seen what Cannizzaro is capable of and will have a tough time keeping him under wraps.
Cannizzaro was a starting middle at the beginning of the season but was moved to attack in Bobzien's absence. In his stead, his brother, Sean, has picked up the slack and done a nice job of it. Joining him are Senior Erik Adamson (8g, 1a) and Sophomore Tyler Pace (4g, 6a). Both are capable middies and classes of their position. Also in the mix is Freshman Brendan Bomberry (4g, 3a), who is a big Canadian with a big shot. While not as dangerous as the attack unit, this unit runs their offense which makes them extremely efficient. Consider that in four games, the Pioneers' top middle line has only seven turnovers combined. Considering their shot average and goals per game average, that is a really low number.
Defensively, the Pioneers reloaded at the position, bringing back Christian Burgdorf while inserting Pat Karole in the new second slot. Jake Nolan and last year's starter Carson Cannon have split the back end starts in two apiece. This is a shut-down unit with a lot of size (Karole is 6'1, Burgdorf and Cannon are 6'4 and Nolan is 6'6) and a lot of physicality. Like last year, this unit's Achilles Heel is penalties. Only Nolan has gone without a penalty this season.
In net, Denver returns Ryan LaPlante, who was a brick wall against the Irish in one half of play last year. Unlike last year, Denver Head Coach Bill Tierney plays LaPlante exclusively, and for good reason. He's good. Considering his play last year against Notre Dame, the offense will really need to find a way to get to the back of the net on LaPlante, because they'll be in for a long afternoon if they allow him to get into a groove.
This is a hard game to figure out. While the Irish appeared sloppy (on paper) against Georgetown, they blew out Michigan and Dartmouth. By contrast, Denver started the season off against the defending National Champions in Duke, and beat them 17-13, where the Pioneers used 6-goal 3rd and 4th quarters to pull away from the Blue Devils. But Duke has a history of dropping games early in the season and coming on late. Then, like Notre Dame, the Pioneers beat up on some lesser opponents in Air Force and Furman. Against North Carolina last week however, Denver was completely outplayed. The Tar Heels outshot, out groundballed and outscored the Pioneers. North Carolina had a ridiculous 57(!) shots on LaPlante, only scoring 12 goals.
So how did the Tar Heels pull off the upset?
Offensive ball control and penalties.
Going into the North Carolina game, Denver was averaging 4 penalties a game for roughly 3 and a half minutes total. That is a lot. But in the North Carolina game, discipline went out the window. The Pioneers racked up an astoundingly high 8 penalties totaling 9 minutes and 30 seconds. While one was at the end of the game, the Tar Heels were man up for 7 of them and scored on 4 of those possessions. If the Irish hope to win this, they will need to do what the Tar Heels did and convert on the man-up. Denver plays very physical, so the Irish need to keep their heads straight and focus on scoring goals and maintaining their composure.
In addition, given the amount of shots that the Tar Heels racked up, it means that they were sustaining possession, and keeping the ball out of the hands of a dangerous Denver offense. The Irish will need to do the same, and winning face-offs will help, as the Pioneers are relying on true Freshman Trevor Baptiste in the position. To date, Baptiste has taken all but three of Denver's face-offs, and has gone 64-95 for an impressive 67% average. However, he only went 50% against the Tar Heels. The Irish will need to win face-offs to have a shot here.
It will be a tough task. Denver is coming off a tough loss in a game they definitely should have won. In fact, outside of a disastrous third quarter for Denver, they would have easily won the game. My guess is Tierney will take this week to settle his players down and they'll come out flying against the Irish, who really haven't seen an opponent like this all year.
While the attack and middies will likely find the net, I am still skeptical of the Irish's back end, especially in net. Whether it is Doss or Kelly, Denver will be unleashing an offensive torrent on him and he will need to step up and make the saves. Like last year, the Irish put themselves in contention to win but let it slip away late.
Denver 18 Notre Dame 16