Soccer preview: Where is Big Ten race headed?

Week 2 of Big Ten competition saw three hard-fought games that needed more than 90 minutes of play to be decided. It showed that there is not much separating each team in the conference and that many games are going to come down to one shot, one save, or one executed set piece. So, no matter the records, easy games are few and far between in the Big Ten with only two games having been decided by more than one goal so far.

Having said that, through two weeks not much has changed in the overall picture of what was expected based on non-conference play. Northwestern and Indiana sit at the top of the table at 2-0, while Michigan joined Penn State with a single tally in the win column.

Big Ten Standings (through Oct. 3)
Team Record Pct. Pts. Record Pct.
Indiana 2-0-0 1.000 6 8-2-2 .773
Northwestern 2-0-0 1.000 6 7-2-2 .727
Penn St. 1-1-0 .500 3 6-3-1 .650
Michigan 1-1-0 .500 3 3-5-0 .375
Wisconsin 0-1-0 .000 0 3-4-3 .450
Ohio State 0-2-0 .000 0 4-6-1 .409
Michigan St. 0-1-0 .000 0 3-6-1 .350

Looking ahead to this weekend, Indiana has a huge opportunity to take over sole possession of first place with a home contest against Wisconsin as co-leader, Northwestern is idle. Penn State and Michigan will battle in Ann Arbor to see who can establish themselves as a top three contender, while Michigan State and Ohio State each attempt to pick up their first win in conference play. My game-by-game analysis and picks are below.

WISCONSIN (3-4-3, 0-1) @ No. 14 INDIANA (8-2-1, 2-0)
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET

With the personnel at hand for each team, this is one of the few games all season that I could see being very one-sided. Moreover, the Hoosiers having the home-field advantage and being cognizant of their opportunity to hop in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten race may lead to the flood-gates opening against the Badgers.

Every coach uses the hyperbole of wanting their team to play a full 90 minutes, but few teams have the ability. Indiana has shown their offensive capabilities in spurts and that, combined with some timely saves by back to back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Luis Soffner has gotten them to 2-0 in the conference. Head coach Todd Yeagley would love to see his Hoosiers begin to put everything together like they have the ability to do and move to 3-0 with the stretch run approaching. If they can do so, they are going to be very tough to beat because nobody can out-talent the Hoosiers in the Big Ten.

I believe the Hoosiers will come to play for the total 90 minutes and thus, end the recent Big Ten overtime trend. No free soccer in Bloomington, but there could be some fireworks. Look for sophomore forward Eriq Zavaleta, who added two more goals to his Big Ten-leading total of nine in a 4-1 trouncing over Kentucky Wednesday night, to reach double figures against the Badgers in this still young season.

Prediction: Indiana 3, Wisconsin 0

PENN STATE (6-3-1, 1-1) @ MICHIGAN (3-5-0, 1-1)
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO

Penn State suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Hoosiers last weekend, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet. Michigan was on the other end of the spectrum, capitalizing on a goalkeeper error with 46 seconds left in double overtime at home against the Buckeyes, yet, I am not completely sold on the Wolverines.

Michigan goalkeeper Adam Grinwis has talent displaying that with a huge save in the first overtime to keep the Wolverines alive and Latif Alashe, who has started all 71 games in his career, is continuing to be the rock in the center of the field on both sides of the ball. At the same time, they are still giving up 2 goals per game in Big Ten play and don’t have enough consistent weapons to compensate.

Penn State has more attacking options than Michigan with the likes of Julian Cardona (5 G, 1 A) and Minh Vu (1 G, 3 A) along with a more organized, disciplined defense so I think Penn State will hold their status as a second tier contender behind Indiana and Northwestern with Michigan a rung below.

Prediction: Penn State 2, Michigan 1

MICHIGAN STATE (3-6-1, 0-1) @ OHIO STATE (4-6-1, 0-2)
Sunday at noon ET

This match pits two teams against each other that are better than their records display.

Michigan State outplayed the defending Big Ten champion, Northwestern Wildcats, in East Lansing last weekend. However, they came up short after losing a mark on a corner which led to Jay Chapman making a poor, split-second gamble to block the ball (which was headed into the net) with his hand resulting in a red card and a goal on the ensuing penalty kick. From there, the Wildcats took over and handed Michigan State their third overtime loss of the 2012 campaign.

I like Michigan State’s ability to get their right back, Maryland transfer and former Canadian U-17 National Team player, Seymour Parker, up the right flank into the attack. In the final third, Tim Kreutz, Domenic Barone, and Adam Montague combine well together and just need to find the final pass more often.

I think they will be able to take advantage of Ohio State’s suspect goalkeeping situation and lack of cohesiveness among the back four. Ohio State does have some things going now offensively with Austin McAnena (3 G, 3 A) surging and Chris Hegngi (1 G, 1 A) relieved of his scoring draught, though. All things considered, I believe Michigan State will finally grab a win in overtime in their fourth try and the Buckeyes will lose their second straight in agonizing fashion.

Prediction: Michigan State 3, Ohio State 2

No. 22 NORTHWESTERN (7-2-2, 2-0) vs. No. 10 Notre Dame (9-2-0)
Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET

Northwestern has struggled lately losing their last two non-conference games while also looking out of sync and uncharacteristically sloppy in the back at times against Michigan State. They showed character in finding a way to gut out a win though, on the road in a hostile environment, against the Spartans to keep pace with Indiana at 2-0.

The combination play looks smooth in the middle third of the field with maestro Chris Ritter (4 G, 3 A) dictating the possession, along with Layth Masri and Lepe Seetane, but the offense appears stagnant in the final third being unable to make the final pass and finish. Freshman Joey Calistri (4 G) has cooled off and may have hit the proverbial rookie wall in addition to being neutralized by seasoned, athletic defenders such as Michigan State’s Kevin Cope.

The Wildcats do not have a Big Ten game this weekend, but face their toughest opponent to date in the tenth-ranked Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish. Tim Lenahan will surely have his team motivated to get back to the little things that got them off to a 6-0-2 start, but sophomore defender Nikko Boxall picking up a red card in the loss to Bradley on Wednesday will make things even tougher for the Wildcats to contain a star-studded Notre Dame team.

Northwestern always gets up for Notre Dame and has had their number in recent years, but I don’t think an out of form Wildcat team can take down the Irish without All-Big Ten centerback Boxall.

Prediction: Notre Dame 2, Northwestern 1

Overall, it should be another exciting weekend of Big Ten soccer with heavy implications as we near the midway point in conference play.

About Cody Stanley BTN.com contributor Cody Stanley is a former captain of the Northwestern men’s soccer team. He’ll be offering his weekly previews of Big Ten men’s soccer this season BTN.com.

Cody Stanley is a 2011 Northwestern University graduate from Lansing, IL who was captain of the varsity men’s soccer team at NU. He writes for BTN.com and SB Nation's Northwestern blog, Sippin' On Purple. Cody can be followed on twitter @cody_stanley5.

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