Indiana head men's soccer coach Todd Yeagley had one simple request for his team prior to the Hoosiers' road match against Northwestern on Tuesday night: "Just go out and play."
The message might seem nominal or cliché, right? But what else is the head coach supposed to say when his team, just a few months removed from playing for a National Championship, can't seem to gel together?
Talent hasn't been the issue for Indiana either -- rarely is it ever. Rather, it's been a slog of matches that have left the Hoosiers appearing disjointed and tense. Yeagley has even admitted so.
Thus, entering Tuesday night's showdown, IU found itself in unfamiliar territory -- with a 3-2-1 overall record, 0-1 in Big Ten play, and unranked in the United Soccer Coaches' poll for the first time since 2015.
If there was ever a place and opponent for Indiana to regain its championship pedigree and swagger -- no matter how marginal -- against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., presented that opportunity.
And the Hoosiers did just that by scoring two unanswered goals in the second half to out-duel the Wildcats in a 2-1 road triumph. Goals from freshman Samuel Sarver in the 47th minute and junior Herbert Endeley in the 52nd minute capped off arguably IU's best half, from start to finish, that it's played all season.
But the first 45 minutes didn't inspire much confidence in IU's impending second half barrage.
With a steady, gusty wind blowing at Northwestern's back, and a slick playing surface at Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium, the weather conditions from the onset already put Indiana at a slight disadvantage in the first half. Making matters even tougher for the Hoosiers was a revamped Starting XI which saw Sarver, Endeley and Patrick McDonald retreat to the bench in favor of Quinten Helmer, Maouloune Goumballe and Ryan Wittenbrink.
While the rotation changes doled out by Yeagley proved to be savvy in hindsight, it was a starting lineup combination that had yet to previously play together at once, and it showed throughout the first half. So did the unfavorable weather.
Six minutes was all the Wildcats needed to break through IU's backline and strike first. A perfectly placed through-ball from Northwestern's Justin Weiss allowed forward Vincente Castro to sneak behind Indiana's final line of defense, use a bit of fancy footwork, and tap in a goal past IU goalkeeper Roman Celentano and defender Spencer Glass.
We lead against No. 11 Indiana. It's @vcastror with the cooooool finish. What a celebration ?#GoCats pic.twitter.com/3KaRZp9gyS
— Northwestern MSoccer (@NUMensSoccer) September 22, 2021
Reminiscent of past matches this season, IU found itself in an early hole.
Fortunately, this was the same Northwestern team that had already surrendered 100 shots, nearly 30 of them on frame, to opponents through seven matches entering Tuesday night. All the Hoosiers needed to do was settle in and string together enough passes before a ball would eventually sneak its way past Wildcats goalkeeper Miha Miskovic.
The equalizer nearly came at several moments throughout the first half, with a slew of Hoosiers creating chance after chance inside the 18-yard box, but to no avail. There was perhaps no better goal-scoring opportunity than in the 26th minute, when Indiana junior right back Nyk Sessock sent a cross to the far post that found Wittenbrink wide-open in front of the goal. The chance was squandered, however, as Wittenbrink couldn't corral the service and generate a clean shot on frame.
Similar opportunities continued all half for the Hoosiers as they tallied three shots and four corner kicks but headed into halftime with nothing to show for it. Although, given the pace and amount of attacking success IU garnered as the intermission neared, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Hoosiers evened the score.
Enter Sarver, Endeley, Munie, Bezerra, Wittenbrink, and a second half that showed stretches of the dominant Hoosiers from a season ago.
It started with nifty passing from Munie, a bit of luck, and a brilliant looping finish from Sarver. Less than two minutes out of halftime, Munie sent a long ball ahead to Sarver that traveled nearly 50 yards before ricocheting off a Northwestern defender's head and dropping at the feet of IU's freshman energizer who finished the equalizer.
— Sam Sarver (@samsarver_) September 22, 2021
One goal wasn't going to be enough, though, if Indiana had hopes of leaving Evanston with a crucial road win. Less than five minutes later, Endeley made sure the Hoosiers would return to Bloomington with three extra points in the conference standings.
The game-winning sequence began with IU's MAC Hermann candidate, Bezerra, who threaded a pass down the left flank to a streaking Wittenbrink. With a numbers advantage inside the 18-yard box, Wittenbrink tapped the ball across to Endeley, and the junior promptly buried the winner with ease.
Herb puts the Hoosiers in front! pic.twitter.com/PJp8GpcBFY
— Indiana Men's Soccer (@IndianaMSOC) September 22, 2021
It goes without saying, Indiana absolutely needed a big response Tuesday night following its Big Ten opener let-down against Rutgers last Friday. The Hoosiers hadn't dropped consecutive conference matches since 2013, but that streak was very much in danger against the Wildcats.
Then the fire was lit at halftime, and the Hoosiers heeded their coaches' one request: "Just go out and play." And that's exactly what Indiana displayed in the second half.
Going forward, it's on Indiana to prove Tuesday was no fluke.