Soccer Previews: A look at the action ahead

Week 4 of Big Ten play is in the books as Northwestern was able to hold serve against Ohio State with Indiana idle to move back into a first place tie with the Hoosiers at 3-0. Both other home teams were able to grab the win as well with Wisconsin posting a mild upset of Michigan for their first win of the 2012 conference campaign and Penn State defeating Michigan State to stay afloat in the race.

As mentioned, the Nittany Lions at 2-1-1 are not done just yet, but everybody is circling that Nov. 1 date on the calendar when the Wildcats and Hoosiers could potentially battle under the bright lights in the legendary Jerry Yeagley Field at Armstrong Stadium as 5-0 teams in a de-facto Big Ten championship game. You would never get Northwestern Head Coach Tim Lenahan to admit that he is though, as he avoided Kevin Egan’s advances about the game like a Lepe Seetane ankle-breaking cut move.

I’m sure Indiana Head Coach Todd Yeagley would have run away from commenting on that game faster than Nikita Kotlov in a foot race as well, but things sure do seem to be shaping up for a rare, unofficial Big Ten title game in Bloomington in the final match of the regular season.

[RELATED: Get full Big Ten men's soccer standings at BigTen.org.]

Indiana and Northwestern may be the two consensus best teams with identical 10-2-2, 3-0 records, but neither of them can afford to look ahead when nearly every game in Big Ten play is tight especially this time of year when the weather starts changing, nagging injuries build up and student-athletes have a full course load at hand. So, it could come down to who is the more focused, mentally tough team on the day. Can the the two unbeatens stay locked in and move one week closer to a grand finale or will Penn State stay in the mix?

MICHIGAN (4-7-1, 1-2-1) @ No. 11 INDIANA (10-2-2, 3-0)
Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Digital Network

Indiana hosts a Michigan team coming off a big let down in Madison last weekend and now have to face a superior Hoosier squad. It looks like the Wolverines are stuck between a rock and a hard place in this one. Tactically, it would make sense for Michigan to sit back in a 4-5-1 letting the Hoosier backs and midfielders keep possession and pick the moments to step together as a unit to try and get something on a counter-attack. Yet, Michigan historically, has always been a side that likes to get up and down pitch, but would get run off the field with the likes of Eriq Zavaleta, (13 G, 2 A) who won’t stop scoring and Kotlov, (2 G, 3 A) who is starting to score, playing that style. I think Michigan will go with more of a counter-attack approach, but I don’t believe they have the personnel or discipline at this juncture to do so successfully.

The only way the Hoosiers could drop this one would be from a lapse in concentration. However, I don’t foresee that happening for a club that has yet to surrender a goal in conference play under a coach who is restoring the dominance of IU soccer that his father built.

Prediction: Indiana 2, Michigan 0

WISCONSIN (5-6-3, 1-2) @ MICHIGAN STATE (6-7-1, 1-2)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO

Head Coach John Trask has the Badger offense up and running now with five goals in their last two games picking up their first conference win in the process. Chris Prince (3 G, 5 A) and Nick Janus (4 G, 1 A) are leading an attack that averages 1.36 goals per game. So, why aren’t they a Big Ten contender? The defense is allowing an identical 1.36 goals per game.

Michigan State is having similar issues in the back averaging 1.14 goals against per contest. Their offense has also shown signs of life with graduate student and transfer from Wake Forest Luke Norman (3 G, 2 A) displaying his playmaking abilities that made him a Parade Magazine 1st Team All-American in high school and successful player in the talented ACC.

Michigan State may be a little bit better than their record shows and home field aids them to a win over the Badgers.

Prediction: Michigan State 3, Wisconsin 2

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PENN STATE (8-4-2, 2-1-1) @ No. 24 NORTHWESTERN (10-2-2, 3-0)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET

This game has potential to be a real battle between two teams in the upper tier of the conference who will be ready to fight to the end. Both sides have stingy defenses who allow under a goal a game and neither will be ready to relent in this game as Northwestern looks to keep their undefeated record (in conference) intact and Penn State attempts to put themselves in a position to have an outside chance to unexpectedly steal the crown.

Forward Mickey Minutillo has come back from an early season injury for Penn State to get the offense clicking that will provide Northwestern with some problems through creative combinations and runs in behind. The Wildcats though, have gotten things settled in the back and are very tough to beat at Lakeside Field (5-1-1) where the whipping winds off Lake Michigan and artificial surface provide a unique homefield advantage that makes it especially tough for opposing keepers as evidenced by Eric Weberman’s bouncing 40 yard goal vs. Ohio State’s Alex Wimmer.
I believe the Wildcat defense will bend, but not break and pull out a close one that may need extra time.

Prediction: Northwestern 2, Penn State 1

OHIO STATE (5-8-1, 0-4) vs. Wright State (3-9-1); vs. Akron (10-1-2)
Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Digital Network; Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO

Ohio State is mathematically eliminated from Big Ten play and their RPI probably will not be good enough to get them in the tournament no matter what they do the rest of the way, but Head Coach John Bluem will now be searching for his best line-up that could potentially grind out wins come Big Ten tournament time.

I think Coach John Bluem was trying to send a message to his team in the second half against Northwestern pulling many of his starters, letting seldom-used players show what they can do. That said, the Buckeyes displayed good effort overall and the defense was much more compact and organized last weekend, but the goalkeeping issues still persist even with Wimmer replacing former number one Alex Ivanov. Wimmer showed some signs, but the big miscue was still there so that situation will need to get sorted out if they have any hope of making the type of run the 0-6 Nittany Lions made in the Big Ten tournament last season. Akron will be a good test run to see if they can find a line-up and style that could possibly garner upsets in a single elimination format against more talented, athletic sides.

Predictions: Ohio State 2, Wright State 0; Ohio State 1, Akron 3

The hype is starting to build for a clash of Big Ten titans in the final weekend, but there is still much work to be done for Indiana and Northwestern to get to that point undefeated especially with Bob Warming’s dangerous Nittany Lion squad traveling to Evanston this weekend.

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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