Days after just missing out on a share of the Big Ten regular season title, Indiana men’s soccer took the first step toward ensuring some form of conference hardware on Friday night.
The No. 4-seeded Hoosiers took down the No. 5-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions with a 1-0 victory in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal matchup at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington, putting themselves two wins away from a title.
Not only did Indiana earn revenge over Penn State in the rematch of last season’s Big Ten Tournament championship game, but the first-round win boosted the team’s resume over other Big Ten hopefuls and teams around the nation hoping for at-large bids.
“We needed this win for so many levels, just to solidify (ourselves) in the (NCAA) Tournament a little bit,” redshirt senior defender Daniel Munie said.
The winning goal came from none other than senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink, who has carried the goal-scoring load for the Hoosiers throughout the season and especially down the late stretch of matches.
Pressure down the flanks gave Indiana a flurry of corner kicks deep into the first half. On the eighth attempt of the 11 corners the Hoosiers ultimately totaled, they finally broke through the stubbornly-contested penalty area. Penn State easily headed away the previous seven airborne crosses from danger, but Indiana’s decision to quickly take the ensuing set piece on the ground created the best chance of all.
Freshman forward Luka Bezerra received the ball at his feet, fired a shot toward the 6-yard box and forced a deflection that landed at the top of the penalty area. With the Nittany Lions congested near the net, Wittenbrink had time to accurately place a low-driven shot into the corner of the net.
“We had some advantages on our restarts,” Yeagley said. “It was a really nice finish. Keeping it low in that traffic is important. Witt’s been fantastic all year for us.”
Wittenbrink, named first-team All-Big Ten on Friday, added his eighth goal to an already historic personal season. He’s now scored Indiana’s lone goal in back-to-back matches.
Ahead of Tuesday’s introduction to the postseason, Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said he didn’t expect Penn State, or any team for that matter, to “reinvent the wheel” in terms of their tactical game plan. While Indiana stuck true to those words by starting the same lineup seen in the team’s 1-1 draw to Maryland on Sunday, there was a glaring omission from Penn State’s attack.
Without the help of senior forward Liam Butts, the Nittany Lions shifted their structure and formation in a defensive-minded approach for this season’s second meeting against the Hoosiers.
On Oct. 14, Indiana comfortably defeated Penn State 4-2 in Bloomington. Up until the Hoosiers built up an insurmountable lead in that match, though, Butts was one of the most irritating thorns in the Hoosier back line’s side. His acceleration and swift strides caused the Hoosiers trouble and equalized the match at 1-1 early on.
By having a traditional four-back setup defensively in the first meeting, Butts and his attacking counterparts, junior midfielder Peter Mangione and graduate midfielder Seth Kuhn inserted themselves up the field more frequently and regained possession for Penn State in times of distress.
Butts did feature in the final 10 minutes off the bench, but the damage was already done by then. The back line consisting of five players set Penn State up with limited opportunities to counter, and Indiana expertly held onto possession trying to extend its lead for most of the match.
“His threat in behind is always there,” Yeagley said about Butts. “If he was healthier, they would’ve played like they did the first time. Mangione, although you always fear him, we did a good job of bottling him up.”
The Nittany Lions mustered a 7-0 advantage in shots over the Hoosiers in the second half, but none throughout the entire match were on target. Munie, named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on Friday, and the rest of the back line effortlessly handled the visitors’ 10-minute stretch of possession at the end of the match by keeping composure in the box.
Junior goalkeeper JT Harms wasn’t forced to make any game-changing saves as a result, but he played an important role in denying chances and limiting awkward moments in the box by alertly punching out several crosses.
Other results around the conference — all other top-four seeds, No. 1 Maryland, No. 2 Rutgers and No. 3 Ohio State won their quarterfinal matchups — mean Indiana won’t host another match for the remainder of the Big Ten Tournament.
Tuesday’s home match could also likely have been the final at Bill Armstrong Stadium for the entire season, as it’s doubtful the Hoosiers will earn a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“The crowd really was electric,” Yeagley said. “The guys loved it. (They) were chatting about it after the game.”
Looking ahead, Indiana will get its desired rematch against Big Ten regular season champion Maryland in the tournament’s semifinal round. The Hoosiers will play the Terrapins Nov. 9 in College Park, Maryland, for a berth into the championship game. A time has not yet been set for the semifinal match.
“We’re happy they won,” Munie said. “We’re looking forward to it. It’ll be good to get some revenge hopefully on them.”