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The Q49 Journal: IU's loss at Northwestern, Penn State comes to town

Three matches have come, three matches have gone, and 30% of Indiana’s regular season is in the rear-view mirror. Crazy, I know, but when you’re only given 10 regular season matches and haven’t played in a year and a half, you take what you can get.

After an eight-day stretch to open the season that saw Indiana handle Wisconsin and Ohio State with ease before falling 1-0 to Northwestern, the Hoosiers sit at 2-1 in the Big Ten standings. This week, IU received a much-needed layoff as it gets set to host a tough Penn State team this Sunday.

With that said, let’s dive into this week’s Q49 Journal.

IU lost to Northwestern for first time in over a decade. What happened?

File this one under “things we thought we’d never see, but, y’know, it’s a COVID season.”

Indiana’s 1-0 shutout loss at Northwestern last Saturday snapped a 14-match, 11-year unbeaten streak against the Wildcats. Just so we’re clear, that’s over a decade since Northwestern last beat Indiana. But there’s no need to belabor the point anymore; streaks are bound to die at some point. 

So how did the Hoosiers fall in Evanston despite firing 17 shots (five on goal) and earning eight corner kick chances? IU head coach Todd Yeagley is as perplexed as the rest of us are.

“Honestly, we created as many good chances as we’ve created in actually a couple outings against Northwestern,” Yeagley said. “... That’s where the sport can be cruel. I wasn’t super happy after the first two games about our offensive effectiveness. Quite honestly the Northwestern game was much better.”

Sometimes it just isn’t your day, and that day came Saturday afternoon for Indiana; Ugo Achara Jr.’s game winner in the 88th minute proved as much. 

Junior midfielder Joe Schmidt dribbles the ball in a game against Wisconsin on Feb. 19, 2021, at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. The Hoosiers defeated the Badgers, 3-0. (IU athletics)

Having generated 10 fewer shots than the Hoosiers up until the final three minutes, the Wildcats needed an almost perfectly placed rebound and carom to set up the game-sealing goal, and they got it. Achara walked away the hero, Northwestern escaped the victor, and Indiana left licking its wounds.

But if the loss is at all worrisome to you, allow Yeagley to be the voice of reason.

“Actually I think we went forward, and that’s what’s hard because we lost,” Yeagley said. “But I was much better with the group after the Northwestern game, though it stung. We play and do more of that, and we’ll be fine.”

Perhaps the biggest factor in IU’s defeat was its lack of healthy key players, which thrusted several inexperienced players into heavy minutes. Starting right back Nyk Sessock and starting forward Ian Black both sat out the Ohio State and Northwestern matches, and leading goal scorer Victor Bezerra logged only 48 minutes off the bench against the Wildcats after injuring his leg in the match prior.

Thus, IU had no choice but throw some of its underclassmen into the proverbial Big Ten firepit and see what they could do. Quinten Helmer and Maouloune Goumballe both saw over 50 minutes of action and tallied five combined shots. Helmer looks like he’ll stick in the midfield based on his performance and technical skill. Ryan Wittenbrink, Ben Yeagley and Nate Ward also contributed minutes off the bench, though none recorded an offensive statistic.

Perhaps it’s a bit naive to simply write off the Northwestern loss to injuries, but it certainly warrants a discussion. Once Indiana gets back to full strength, or at least near it, then we’ll have a clearer indication of what these Hoosiers are really capable of.

Showdown with Penn State a potential Big Ten Title preview?

As things currently stand, both Indiana and Penn State hold 2-1 records this season. The Nittany Lions’ lone defeat was a 1-nil result against lowly Michigan State.

Don’t let the early Big Ten standings fool you, though. IU and Penn State are still two of the strongest and most talented teams in the conference, and Sunday could very well be a preview of the Big Ten Title race.

For the Nittany Lions, forward Peter Mangione has quickly asserted himself as a go-to player in Happy Valley. The freshman leads Penn State in goals (two) and points (five), with both scores ending up as game-winners.

Sophomore forward Liam Butts and seniors Brandon Hackenberg and Pierre Ready, all named to the Big Ten Preseason Watch List, will need to be held in check, too, if Indiana wants to protect its home turf on Sunday.

“Penn State’s off to another good start, not to be unexpected,” Yeagley said. “They return a lot of starters from last year, although some of them are young … they have a dynamic attack and have a couple key players on the back line.”

As for the Hoosiers, Yeagley said that the eight-day layoff came at a perfect time, not only for health purposes but also evaluation purposes. With the lingering injuries to Bezerra and Sessock, Yeagley said this week has been crucial for rest and recovery. Based on his optimistic comments, it’s possible that we see both return to the Starting XI against Penn State.

Another benefit of the extended time off was the ability for IU to simply take a deep breath. After nearly 500 days without a real match against a real opponent, the Hoosiers were blitzed with three matches in eight days. With no preseason scrimmages or non-conference opponents, it’s tough to immediately be thrown into conference play that quickly.

“I think the timing of the bye was really advantageous,” Yeagley said. “You want to play after a loss pretty quickly, but that would probably be a time that I’d say no just because of the health.”

All that said, the Hoosiers will need to come ready to play on Sunday. Penn State is no joke, and the Nittany Lions will attack early and often if Indiana isn’t prepared. How Indiana performs and dictates the pace in the early going will be crucial to its success against Penn State.

Buckle up, folks. We could be in for a real treat between two of the Big Ten’s best.

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