Soccer Previews: Penn State in the hunt

All that talk about the highly touted Indiana Hoosiers and Northwestern Wildcats, both unbeaten going into last weekend at 3-0, and guess who is in sole possession of first place now? That would be the scrappy Penn State Nittany Lions, albeit with a game in-hand, at 3-1-1 with 10 points to lead the Hoosiers and Wildcats who are each 3-1 with nine points apiece. How did that happen?

Two undefeated teams (in conference) playing at home with one more game to go before a 5-0 showdown in Bloomington. Chalk it up, right? Michigan and Penn State had other ideas. The Wolverines shocked the (Big Ten soccer) world with the upset of the Hoosiers at home after falling behind 1-0, while the Nittany Lions expectedly hung tough with the Wildcats then unexpectedly handed the Wildcats their first Big Ten loss since 2010 in double overtime.

The Big Ten race suddenly got a bit more complicated, and five of the seven teams are mathematically still alive. Penn State is sitting at the top of the table currently, but they need some help as Indiana and Northwestern still control their own destiny despite the losses.

[RELATED: PGoSUSports.com breaks down the conference title scenarios.]

Very much is at stake this weekend and nothing has yet to be determined with two weeks of Big Ten play remaining. Indiana and Northwestern will be looking to restore order in the Big Ten against Michigan State and Wisconsin, respectively. Penn State, on the other hand, is attempting to keep their momentum going in their final Big Ten regular season game in addition to becoming the Spartans and Badgers’ biggest cheerleaders for a day.

It should be a wild ride the rest of the way. I attempt to predict the upcoming Big Ten games in what has proven to be an unpredictable conference.

OHIO STATE (6-9-1, 0-4) @ PENN STATE (9-4-2, 3-1-1)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET

Penn State is riding high after the big road win over Northwestern. The Wildcats dictated the possession and overall chances in the game, but the veteran, intelligent Nittany Lion squad was composed throughout knowing when to have their forwards put high pressure and when to sit back and get organized. Northwestern definitely had opportunities, but many of their attempts were more half-chances and when they were seriously threatened senior leaders Brian Forgue and John Gallagher cleaned up the danger highlighted by an open goal save on Joey Calistri by Forgue.

Overall, Head Coach Bob Warming has a very well-calibrated team. They have big, athletic forwards like Mickey Minutillo and Hasani Sinclair willing to defend bookended with a rock solid back line and goalkeeper. The pieces seem to fit well and they have versatility with somebody like Daniel Burnham who may start on defense as he did last weekend or be a potent front runner with three goals and two assists on the year.
Ohio State is beginning to look more formidable despite their record playing No. 2 Akron tough Tuesday night having been unlucky to not equalize, but I think Penn State will dictate the tempo in this one. The Nittany Lions will come out with a purpose knowing that with fortuitous results in the other two games of the anything-can-happen Big Ten could lead to championship hats and t-shirts being passed out in Happy Valley.

Prediction: Penn State 2, Ohio State 1

No. 16 INDIANA (11-3-2, 3-1) @ MICHIGAN STATE (7-7-1, 2-2)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET

Nobody is talking about Michigan State, but I like them as a potential sleeper in the Big Ten tournament to make a little noise if the schedule breaks right with Freshman Zach Bennett (.60 GAA) looking confident since taking over in goal the past five games and Adam Montague (4 G, 2 A) heating up in the final third. Having said that, the schedule did not break right for them this week as they will now be facing an extremely focused Hoosier team coming off their first conference loss where they held a lead against a subpar Michigan team, but didn’t put them away.

The key for Michigan State is if defensive midfielder Fatai Alashe can help stymie the unflappable Hoosier midfield that can make you chase and then play penetrating through balls at the perfect moment. Fifth year senior Domenic Barone is going to need to drop in deeper and truly play as more of a central midfielder rather than a withdrawn forward to deal with A.J. Corrado and co. Spartan centerbacks Kevin Cope and Ryan Keener should be able to match up relatively well athletically with Eriq Zavaleta (14 G, 2 A), but ultimately I believe Indiana will put away a couple of those chances that they missed against Michigan and you won’t see any lapses such as the one that allowed the Wolverines to score the decider a couple minutes into the second half.

Prediction: Indiana 2, Michigan State 0

NORTHWESTERN (10-4-2, 3-1) @ WISCONSIN (6-7-3, 1-3)
Sunday at 1 pm ET on BTN/BTN2GO

Northwestern travels to Madison stumbling after losing back to back home overtime matches resulting in their first two game losing streak in over a calendar year. The Wildcats fell to a three-win Northern Illinois team in overtime Wednesday night marking their third loss to an in-state rival (1-3) this season. Luckily, for the Wildcats, the Fightin’ Illini do not have a men’s soccer team and the Badgers are located north of the Illinois border.

No matter who they are playing or what state they are from, being shut-out in two straight games is a concern for Head Coach Tim Lenahan. The midfield is incredibly deep for the Wildcats, but there is not much up front behind lone striker Calistri other than first substitute Eric Weberman who has more of a flank midfielder skill set.

The Badgers, though, still haven’t found a consistent back four and are prone to mistakes such as the penalty conceded to Michigan State. However, at home, Wisconsin has been competent against quality competition defeating Michigan, drawing against Georgetown and falling narrowly to Marquette and Penn State so this team can compete on home soil. Jacob Brindle stepped up with two goals off the bench Wednesday night against UMKC adding a poacher who needs to be marked on crosses along with mainstays Nick Janus and Chris Prince.

Yet, I don’t believe this Wisconsin club has the mettle to derail Northwestern’s opportunity to repeat as midfielders Lepe Seetane and Chris Ritter should be able to exploit the Wisconsin defense enough to break the team’s scoring draught.

Prediction: Northwestern 1, Wisconsin 0

MICHIGAN (5-8-1, 2-2-1) vs. Valparaiso (4-6-5); vs. Detroit (7-7)
Saturday at 2 p.m. ET; Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET

Michigan has proven to be a Jekyll and Hyde team this season. Coming off their enormous win against Indiana, they fell midweek to an under .500 MAC opponent, Bowling Green, and are a team that seems incapable of putting a run together having not won back-to-back games all season.

The Wolverines would need all of the top three teams in the standings to fall this weekend to have a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title when they return to Big Ten play against Michigan State next weekend. The chances of that happening are highly unlikely, but then again, nobody expected what transpired last weekend. If it did indeed happen, it would set the stage for a potential four-way tie at 3-2-1 for the title.

Talk of a four-way tie is crazy, but a drama-filled fight to the finish is not. It is going to be a fun final two weekends of Big Ten soccer. Get your popcorn ready.

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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