Mother Nature has a funny way of expressing her emotions. One moment she’s dropping buckets of rain down onto Bill Armstrong Stadium, the next she’s painting golden sun rays to the West and a double rainbow to the east.
And on Saturday night in Bloomington, as the skies opened up and Mother Nature did all she could to wreak havoc on the field below, IU men’s soccer glided past Northwestern, 3-0, in the Quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“It was a strange first half,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said. “Weather played into that strangeness. The sun came out at one point, the rain, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if we’d have snow next.”
Fortunately for the Hoosiers — and the entire Bloomington community — it did not end up snowing. But rain or shine, Indiana stuck to its game plan, adjusted when necessary and flexed its muscles against an overmatched Northwestern team.
For much of the first half, you’d have thought Jerry Yeagley Field was located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The precipitation was heavy and steady, even blowing sideways at times which made for errant passes and less-than-superb play from either team.
Luckily for top-seeded Indiana, it had the benefit of hosting the quarterfinals matchup, and thus had a better feel of how the turf would play and what tweaks would need to be made to accommodate the slick playing surface.
“The game plan was every finish that we have, try hitting it low, use the conditions in our favor,” IU sophomore forward Victor Bezerra said.
Not only did that game plan work for IU, it resulted in another multi-goal effort for Bezerra, his third brace and eighth goal of the season.
The first of Bezerra’s two goals came early in the 7th minute when fellow sophomore attacking mate Herbert Endeley was tripped up inside the 18-yard box and elicited a penalty kick in favor of the Hoosiers. Without thinking twice, Yeagley called upon Bezerra and the newly-minted Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year rewarded his team by burying a shot into the bottom left of the net.
The early tally was crucial for Indiana as the rain, which originally began as a slight drizzle, unleashed a storm that lasted for the remainder of the first half. That’s where things began going a bit awry for IU, though, as its lack of aggressiveness and opportunistic finishing drew the displeasure of Yeagley and the coaching staff.
“That’s where the challenge was at halftime,” Yeagley said, “to continue to hold the tempo, but change the gear. There just needed to be a tempo change at certain times, and we saw more of that in the second half.”
Despite the slower pace to open the match, IU’s backline still stifled Northwestern’s attack, limiting the Wildcats to just two total shots, zero shots on goal, and zero corner kicks. It was a relatively quiet day for the reigning Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, Roman Celentano, given the quality play of defensive mates. Backup goalkeeper Bryant Pratt even made his IU debut with less than 10 minutes remaining, a sign of how well the Hoosier defense was holding up.
And it was only a matter of time before IU’s attack began to match its defensive intensity.
In the 42nd minute, forward Ryan Wittenbrink capitalized on a major gaffe by Northwestern starting goalkeeper Ethan Bandre. With a live ball trickling back inside Northwestern’s goal box and Wittenbrink in heavy pursuit, Bandre attempted to clear the ball but instead kicked it right back to Wittenbrink who finished off IU’s 2-nil lead. It marked the fourth goal of Wittenbrink’s breakout redshirt sophomore campaign.
Then, to slam the door shut one final time on the Wildcats’ season, Bezerra struck again in the 72nd minute. A textbook touch pass from midfielder Joe Schmidt found a streaking Bezerra all alone inside Northwestern’s box and he rifled a curving shot past Bandre’s outstretched arms.
“When (Bezerra’s) around the 18(-yard box), you get excited, we get excited, other teams not, but we are,” Yeagley said with a slight chuckle.
Perhaps it’s a bit premature to say, but with Bezerra leading the offensive charge, IU’s ceiling is as high as any team in the nation. Couple that with a stout defense that has conceded a total of two goals all season and it’s no wonder why Indiana has catapulted itself into contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
However, the Hoosiers must take care of business in the Big Ten Tournament first before they can even think beyond that, which means up next is semifinals tango with bitter rival Maryland on Wednesday.
In what may be the toughest match of the season for the Hoosiers when they face the Terrapins — their regular-season match was canceled — they’ll need every bit of Bezerra, the stone-wall defense and the confidence that showed on Saturday against the Wildcats.
“We come to IU for bigger things than individual awards,” Bezerra said. “We look for the team goals and that’s where my heads at right now.”