Sometimes all you need is a little luck.
For Indiana on Sunday afternoon in Happy Valley, the luck came in the form of a Penn State own-goal in the 75th minute initiated by senior right-back Nyk Sessock, giving IU the late advantage necessary to finish off a 1-0 road win.
After 74 minutes of frenetic play and a howling wind blowing the ball every which way, all it took for Sessock and the Hoosiers was a curving pass into the 18-yard box that deflected off the head of Penn State defender Brandon Hackenberg, sending the ball whizzing past Penn State goalkeeper Kris Shakes and into the back of the net.
There was nothing Shakes could do but slam his fists into the ground in a fit of frustration and confoundment.
Though it probably wasn’t the manner in which Indiana envisioned stealing a crucial conference victory, the bottom line is this — the Hoosiers desperately needed three points to keep their Big Ten regular season title hopes alive, and it didn’t matter what form or fashion it happened.
Now the circumstances become this — the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions tied atop the Big Ten standings with two weeks left in the regular season, just as it was a season ago at the exact same time in the conference calendar.
But for a large portion of the match, up until the decisive 75th minute, an Indiana win was no guarantee. In fact, with as much attacking pressure and advancing success as Penn State was having, the Hoosiers likely would’ve been content with escaping Jeffrey Field with a draw.
The blustery weather conditions certainly didn’t help either side, also. Whether it was set pieces sucked into the air stream, corner kicks that hurdled several feet too high and several feet out of bounds, or shots that had no prayer of going on frame as the wind swiped them away, a near-perfect defensive effort was needed to pull out a win.
Roman Celentano and Kris Shakes, step right up.
It was a matchup between two of the Big Ten’s best goalkeepers, Celentano the reigning Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, and Shakes a three-year lynchpin between the pipes for the Nittany Lions. The end product did not disappoint.
In just the first half alone Celentano and Shakes combined to save nine shots, five for the former and four for the latter. Without each goalkeepers Herculean-like efforts inside the six-yard box, the end result would’ve looked entirely different.
No moment encapsulated the goalkeeping joust more eloquently than in 37th minute, when Celentano sprawled out to deny two Nittany Lions shots within a 14 second frame. But less than six minutes later, Shakes had the last laugh of the half, besting Indiana freshman Tommy Mihalic on a shot seemingly headed for the back of the net.
After 45 scoreless minutes and each side firing six shots apiece, it became a matter of which side could fend off the fatal mistake the long. And in the second half, with the wind at Indiana’s back and time ticking down, it was clear that Penn State wasn’t going to budge — at least not a team so disciplined and fundamentally sound.
So Sessock took matters into his own hands. If the Nittany Lions weren’t going to beat themselves, Sessock had to force the Nittany Lions to beat themselves, both figuratively and literally.
In the end, one final pass earmarked for chaos inside Penn State’s box proved to be the difference, Hackenberg’s head colliding with Sessock’s pass at just the right angle to sneak the ball into the bottom right corner.
On an afternoon when the Hoosiers had a golden chance to exorcise its early season struggles and firmly re-establish their presence in the Big Ten race, they effectively did just that in a hostile road environment and against a team which had yet to lose a conference game this season.
Winners of six of its last seven matches, Indiana is starting to play like the team many anticipated at the beginning of the season.
And that team is an awfully daunting proposition — for the Big Ten and nationally.