Indiana midfielder Patrick McDonald routinely stepped back a few steps, preparing to take the corner kick, while also deceiving Penn State defenders. Rather than curling an aerial pass, McDonald rushed to play a short ground pass to an open Luka Bezerra, standing on the edge of the 18-yard box.
Bezerra took a few touches, then hurled a low-leveled shot toward goal, only for it to be deflected. Ryan Wittenbrink greeted the ball on the other side of the box, and re-directed it into the bottom corner of the net. Penn State goalkeeper Kris Shakes stood frozen on the goal line.
Wittenbrink glided toward the corner of the pitch, danced, and then kicked the corner flag in celebration. His team-leading eighth goal of the season stood as the lone score during Indiana's 1-0 victory in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament Friday night.
Wittenbrink's goal arose from Indiana's eighth corner kick less than 35 minutes into the match. During each of those attempts, Penn State crammed the box — sometimes with every single player. Indiana battled to break through. Penn State’s overcrowded corner-kick strategy coincided with its five-player backline, which didn't appear during the previous meeting between these teams in mid-October. Indiana won that match 4-2, becoming the fastest program to reach 800 wins. Perhaps, the Nittany Lions opted to pack their players to avoid conceding another quartet of goals.
"It was tough because in that five-back, which they switched to — they haven't played it this year, at least not recently, there's a lot of good help in that second layer," Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said postmatch.
At the break, Indiana maintained a 7-1 shot advantage, and impressively blanked Penn State in corner kicks 10-0. Surely, Penn State would have to make some changes structurally with only 45 minutes to find the equalizer. Yet, aside from the wingbacks playing a bit closer to the midfield line, the five-player backline remained generally the same.
"Second half honestly, we weren't sure if they would change back into their traditional shape, but they kept it the same," Yeagley said. "And it was a little bit of a tug of war. I thought we missed some key attacks early (in the second half), and it kind of lost a little bit of our attacking mojo. I thought even though we had control of the game, we just weren't precise enough."
Penn State rallied in the shots category during the second half, outshooting Indiana 7-0. Yes, all of these shots were either blocked or off-target. On multiple occasions, Indiana goalkeeper JT Harms courageously abandoned his line to punch the ball away. But still, Penn State didn't sit back, and even generated a few dangerous point-blank chances in the final minutes, which Indiana players blocked to seal the victory.
In the final 10 minutes of the match, Indiana replicated Penn State's defense-heavy strategy, wanting anything but to allow the equalizer. In the team's previous match against Maryland, the Terrapins notched an 87th-minute equalizer to claim sole possession of the conference regular season title. So, Yeagley substituted in defender Jansen Miller for midfielder Quinten Helmer.
"We trained all week with Jansen in that role and moving into a five-back," Yeagley said. "And I thought we were effective in it and were able to finish the game."
This was the third straight season Indiana and Penn State met in the Big Ten Tournament. In the 2020-21 spring season, Indiana won the tournament championship via penalty shootout. Last season, Penn State achieved revenge with a 3-0 shutout victory to claim the trophy. And now, Indiana won the tournament best-of-three tiebreaker with the quarterfinal victory.
Who awaits Indiana in the semifinals? Yup, No. 1 Maryland. Wednesday night's match will be a rematch from the regular season title-deciding match on Oct. 30. Only this time, Indiana will be on the road.
"We saw it," two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Daniel Munie said. "We're obviously looking forward to it. We're happy they won. It'll be good to go play at their field. Obviously, get some revenge hopefully, on them."