Northwestern is no longer undefeated, but remains a Big Ten contender

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Northwestern is no longer undefeated, but remains a Big Ten contender

The Northwestern Wildcats had an undefeated record (9-0-0) as they entered their third Big Ten Conference match of the season against Rutgers University last Friday.

Northwestern has defeated Rutgers 1-0 in overtime over two consecutive seasons. Coach Michael Moynihan of Northwestern expected a battle against the Scarlet Knights.“We knew they probably had a little bit of a vendetta,” Moynihan said postgame. “We knew we’d be in for a very tough challenge.”

One such challenge would be Rutgers keeper Alana Jimenez, who posts a 0.48 goals against average (GAA) and four shutouts going into Friday’s match. Additionally, Rutgers is a team built to put offensive pressure on opponents. Leading up to Friday, Rutgers had recorded nine or more shots on goal in 75 percent of the team’s games and lead the Big Ten with 72 shot attempts in eight games.

[More from Excelle: Rutgers women’s soccer is focused on regrouping, not rebuilding]

Bright spots for Northwestern in 2016 have been goalkeeper Lauren Clem and the defensive line.  Clem entered the match against Rutgers ranked first in the Big Ten in shutouts, earning eight in nine games. Additionally, Clem had a goals allowed average of 0.11, second best in all of college soccer. With the 2-0 shutout win over Purdue on September 18th, the Wildcats had a program-record 626 straight shutout minutes. The Wildcats looked to improve to 3-0 in Big Ten play, while the Scarlet Knights looked to remain perfect in the final match of a five-game home stand.

How it unraveled

Rutgers came out very aggressively in the first half and gave Clem early trouble. In the third minute, Colby Ciarrocca headed a great through ball, but missed high. In the 22nd minute, Rutgers scoring leader Madison Tiernan headed a shot, but Clem was there for her first of three saves in the opening half. Ten minutes later, Taylor Aylmer found Erica Murphy among a flurry of Northwestern defenders for the first goal of the game, snapping the Wildcats’ consecutive shutout minutes streak at 659 minutes.

Northwestern’s Brenna Lovera went down with an injury in the second half, leaving the Wildcats without its top attacker.* The Wildcats recorded no shots nor corner kicks in the first half; the Scarlet Knights posted eight shots and one corner kick to earn the 1-0 lead at the half. “I felt … in the first half, we got rattled by their pressure,” Moynihan said. Rutgers controlled the tempo in the first half and had their way offensively.

But the second half yielded more even possession, “In the second half, we calmed down.  It wasn’t a matter of working harder, it was a matter of being calmer and making better decisions,” Moynihan said. In the first several minutes, the Wildcats recorded the first of two corner kicks on the night. Nandi Mehta had a look on goal, but booted her shot high. In the 61st minute, Rutgers broke through the Northwestern defense and aggressively attacked the net. The Wildcats blocked one shot and Clem saved another two from close distance before clearing the ball.  Midfielder Nicole Whitley sent in a cross from the corner that deflected to the foot of Colby Ciarrocca for her third goal of the season.

[More from Excelle: Stanford remains No. 1 in the NSCAA Coaches’ Poll]

Northwestern struggled to find good scoring opportunities, notching only three shots in the 2nd half.  Rutgers keeper Alana Jimenez crushed the final attack from the Wildcats, saving a shot off the foot of Marisa Viggiano in the 83rd minute. Northwestern suffered the first loss of the season, but had little time to dwell.

“We have to be the team to assert ourselves and play the game that we want,” said Moynihan on Friday, “We just have to pick it up, and get back after it on Sunday.”

The quick turnaround

Two days later, the Wildcats faced Big Ten opponent Maryland on the road. Trying to forget Friday’s start, the Wildcats started aggressively. Sophomore midfielder Viggiano picked up where she left off in New Jersey and scored the opening goal in the fourth minute. Her service from the corner was deflected in by Maryland for an own goal. In the 17th minute, Maddy Lucas found Kassidy Gorman for the second Northwestern goal. The Wildcats closed the half with a third goal from senior Maria Grygleski. The Lisle, Illinois native recorded her first goal to put the Wildcats up 3-0 at the half.

The Terrapins spoiled Clem’s shutout when Jlon Flippens buried her penalty kick to get Maryland on the board in the 62nd minute. The final strike of the contest came when Viggiano connected with defender Kayla Sharples in the 80th minute. The sophomore defender headed the ball past Terps keeper, Katelyn Jensen, for her first career goal.

Where are they now

After last weekend, Northwestern remains one of the top four teams in the Big Ten with a 3-1-0 record (9-1-0 overall). The Wildcats will wrap-up a three game road trip at Ohio State (1-2-1) Friday, before returning home to host Michigan State (1-2-0) and Michigan (3-0-0). The Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll projected Northwestern will finish seventh in the conference. The Wildcats are not set to meet the defending NCAA Champions Penn State in the regular season. The Nittany Lions (3-0-1) sit second behind Minnesota in Big Ten rankings. Matches against the undefeated Michigan Wolverines and sixth place Nebraska will determine if the Wildcats can remain one of the top five teams.

For Northwestern, the 2016 season has already been special. “We’ve set a bunch of records as a program,” said Moynihan. Playing consistently and within the game plan, however, is what the Wildcats will need to do moving forward. “We have a very energetic group and a very hardworking group; a very spirited group. Hopefully, we just stay strong together and people step up, and we move forward.”

Link to the article at Excelle Sports:

Northwestern is no longer undefeated, but remains a Big Ten contender

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