Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley can’t quite put his finger on it yet.
Is it something schematically that’s gone awry? Does the rotation and personnel need a shakeup? Why does this season’s squad seemingly lack the fire and energy of past Hoosiers teams?
These are some of the questions that have been asked to Yeagley in various postgame press conferences this season. If Yeagley had the answers, though, No. 11 Indiana probably wouldn’t have suffered a 2-1 loss against Rutgers on Friday night to open Big Ten play, the Hoosiers first loss to the Scarlet Knights since Sep. 20, 2015.
“The spirit wasn’t great tonight, I don’t know why that was the case,” Yeagley said. “We’ve had a couple of those nights. Not a lot of joy in their play, so we’ve got to kind of reset them.”
But how does that joy simply disappear, and where has it gone? For a team that returned nearly its entire roster and was just one win away from a National Championship a season ago, these don’t look like the same Hoosiers.
Across six matches this season, Indiana has already conceded eight goals, with Rutgers adding two more to that tally. Last season, IU allowed just six goals the entire season. While potentially alarming on the surface, it’s a microcosm of IU’s struggles all season to this point.
“I don’t know if the expectations of the job not finished last year (National Championship) for the returners and new guys are weighing on them,” Yeagley said. “I’m not sure. We don’t talk about it, but in the back of their minds it might be.”
Against the Scarlet Knights, a team that hadn’t scored a single goal against the Hoosiers since 2015, much less win, outplayed their counterpart in nearly every facet. Rutgers finished the match with the edge in shots (9) and shots on goal (4), while Indiana could muster only eight shots and three on frame.
For a brief time Friday night, though, IU showed glimpses of its old self — of a team that was unified, confident and free. Redshirt junior defender Daniel Munie’s goal in the 23rd minute injected life and poise into the home team. Freshman Sam Sarver and Tommy Mihalic were making runs and creating chances as if they were savvy, seasoned veterans. All-American goalkeeper Roman Celentano denied a pair of Rutgers’ chances with sprawling saves.
The match result was within Indiana’s clutches. All it had to do was fend off a surging Rutgers side for one more half. But as the clock ticked on, the Hoosiers began to show signs of breaking, as if they weren’t quite sure how to play with the lead.
That uncertainty and conservative mindset ultimately led to IU’s downfall, first beginning in the 58th minute when Rutgers forward Nico Rosamilia banged home the equalizer after IU couldn’t clear the ball out of their own 18-yard box. The same issues arose again in the 70th minute, when IU failed to clear a loose, second-chance ball inside the box and Rutgers’ Jackson Temple tapped in the game-winner just past Celentano’s outstretched fingertips.
With IU playing from behind in the final 20 minutes, the energy and momentum from earlier seemingly never returned despite Yeagley’s best efforts to tinker with the lineup. Brett Bebej logged 42 minutes in the midfield, Nate Ward saw 36 minutes of action, Quinten Helmer went on for 31 minutes, the list of IU substitutes goes on.
No matter what Yeagley tried in the final minutes, the result appeared to be written in stone already.
“We can’t expect to win a lot of games when a lot of guys have below-average performances,” Yeagley said. “And, again, there’s got to be things we did this week that we could’ve done better as a [coaching] staff.”
Maybe it’s not even something tangible, on the field, that can or needs to be fixed.
Maybe it just comes down to the personality of the Hoosiers and their identity this season, one that lacks the spark that’s required in close matches.
“The personality has to develop on the team,” Yeagley said. “And we’re trying to bring that out, either through encouragement, giving guys a bigger role, or maybe we need different guys on the field at different times.”
Whatever Yeagley tries in the coming days, he better hope it comes to fruition sooner than later. Because as Big Ten play continues full-steam ahead, the proverbial train isn’t going to wait for Indiana to figure itself.
The Hoosiers get their next crack at discovering their personality on Tuesday night as they head north to Evanston, Ill., to take on Northwestern.
“With regards to Northwestern, [the message] is just go out and play,” Yeagley said. “It’s as simple as that. Just get out and play and compete… This will be put behind us.”