Christian Garner rose from his knees, clapped his gloves aggressively and prepared for yet another corner kick. Indiana redshirt senior Ben Yeagley stared in disbelief as gravity pulled him down and the crisp autumn breeze carried over the fans’ groans from behind.
Northwestern’s graduate goalkeeper had denied Indiana men’s soccer from finding Tuesday night’s opening goal for what felt like the millionth time, sprawling out to save Yeagley’s point-blank header at the last moment. It was one of five saves Garner made in the first half, all of which required steady nerves and quick reactions.
For the Hoosiers, who were previously winless in Big Ten play after two attempts, the feeling of near euphoria followed by emptiness was all too familiar. They had little to show for the quality chances they produced in a disappointing draw against Michigan State, and the pressure to get on the scoresheet was at its highest after a scoreless first half against Northwestern.
Three minutes into the second half, Wildcat junior forward Justin Weiss curled an unsavable strike into the top corner of the net for the opening goal. It quickly seemed like another one of those nights for the Hoosiers.
Then, the sleeping giant woke up.
In the ensuing three minutes, Indiana netted three well-executed, team-oriented goals to quickly turn the momentum in its favor en route to a remarkable 4-1 victory against Northwestern at Bill Armstrong Stadium. The win is the Hoosiers’ first in conference play this season, boosting their overall record to 4-2-2.
“The guys were positive with one another,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. “It’s actually really good that (Northwestern’s goal) happened, because it shows this group (saying) ‘No, not tonight.’ We need a little more of that with this group sometimes, so I love that. They’re excited about the way they responded.”
The Hoosiers’ first half frustration stemmed from a pair of one-on-one shots uncharacteristically off target by senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink, two close-range headers Garner denied and a scramble on the goal line nobody in cream and crimson could tuck away before the Wildcats cleared. Immediately following Weiss’ stunning goal, though, the Hoosiers’ urgency corresponded to a much-needed finishing touch.
In the 49th minute, Indiana redshirt junior Quinten Helmer found the equalizer with a neatly placed strike from the center of the penalty area into the lower left corner of the net. Helmer was the beneficiary of senior forward Herbert Endeley’s clever fake attempt at controlling a short cross on the ground, and the Dutch international quickly recognized the shot was his to take.
Under a minute later, Endeley again found himself in the 18-yard box during a quick restart. Wittenbrink found space to receive a pass on the far-left side, then played the ball back to Endeley, who needed no run-up or momentum to thump the ball into the upper netting.
By the 52nd minute, the Hoosiers had turned a one-goal deficit into a two-goal advantage.
Clean, concise interplay between Indiana’s forwards gave Endeley the opportunity for a brace, but Garner deflected it away. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, senior forward Karsen Henderlong sensed the scramble coming. He fended off a Wildcat defender to tap in his first goal as a Hoosier since transferring from Xavier University last summer.
“He’s been really mature in the role he’s been given for such a high-profile playing coming in,” Yeagley said about Henderlong. “That’s why he came here – he said he wanted to be challenged in different ways. His hold-up play was really good, and we need that element with our attacking rotation.”
The flurry of goals not only gave Indiana a comfortable lead, but the opportunity to fix its previous slip-ups in holding onto it. Though trying to conserve some of its energy, the team moved up the pitch with confidence when the opportunity presented itself, looking for more control and another goal.
“This group’s doing better at taking care of the lead and not getting impatient or trying to go another half and losing possession unnecessarily,” Yeagley said. “They were right on the edge of playing a little more direct at times for territory.”
By the final phase of the match, Northwestern was worn out and remained on the back foot. Indiana generally focused on keeping possession and winding the clock down, but Wittenbrink was still searching for redemption.
The super-substitute-turned-starter for the past pair of matches capped off Indiana’s night with a physical run in the box and right-footed strike that launched past Garner before he could locate its direction. Wittenbrink’s team-leading fourth goal of the season put Indiana ahead 4-1.
Its performance in response to the deficit gives Indiana’s attacking unit plenty of reasons to be positive heading into the rest of the Big Ten schedule. Perhaps the most promising sign, though, is the expected contributors showing up when needed most.
“Really good for some of our key attackers to see the back of the net,” Yeagley said. “Those guys need to be putting some points up. We have 10 different goal scorers, that’s great, but you also want your four or five (primary attackers) to start separating.”
Indiana will look for a second consecutive Big Ten win in a road match against Michigan at 4 p.m. Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan suffered a 2-0 defeat to Michigan State on Tuesday and stands at 3-5-2 this season.