Here we are in the final week of the Big Ten regular season and just as everybody expected the defending champion Northwestern Wildcats and seven-time national champion Indiana Hoosiers are battling for the championship – the two teams play tonight at 8 p.m. ET on 8 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO. Only, it’s not quite that simple as Michigan State and Penn State are alive as well.
Northwestern can grab the outright title with a win in Bloomington, but that would require the Wildcats to find the back of the net, something they haven’t done in three games (0-2-1). Although, they can gain a share with a draw coupled with a Michigan State loss.
Indiana can thank their buddies from Ohio State for the two late goals against Penn State last weekend that allows the Hoosiers to acquire at least a share of the Big Ten championship with a win. However, the Hoosiers defense that didn’t give up a goal through their first three conference games (3-0) has become porous surrendering five in their last two (0-2).
Michigan State also stayed in the race with the Nittany Lion collapse and after struggling at the beginning of the season, the Spartans have won five of their last seven. Who do they count on to score consistently, though? Freshman Jay Chapman isn’t going to score a hat trick every game. Those were his first career goals after all. They also concede over a goal per contest and rookie keeper Zach Bennett’s confidence could be wavering with a very soft goal given up to Indiana late.
Penn State, who hadn’t given up more than two goals in a game all season, squandered a 4-2 lead to the worst team in the conference with a chance to guarantee at least a share of the title and the number one seed in the Big Ten tournament. They now have to try to win a championship from their couch which is considerably more difficult than on the field. The Nittany Lions need Northwestern and Indiana to tie and Michigan State to fall to Michigan to get a share.
So, every team is flawed, but also very talented and closely matched. Let’s see which team(s) will be crowned 2012 Big Ten Regular Season Champions.
NORTHWESTERN (10-4-2, 3-1-1) @ No. 22 INDIANA (11-4-2, 3-2)
Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO
Both Northwestern and Indiana are coming into this match in a little bit different form than they imagined a few weeks ago, but nonetheless the Big Ten title is still on the line and the bright lines will be shining at Jerry Yeagley Field at Armstrong Stadium.
Lately, Northwestern has controlled the possession in games, but haven’t found the final pass and shot. In this one, I expect Indiana to see more of the ball making the Wildcats defend for long stretches. The Northwestern defense (.78 GAA) has remained strong and organized through the scoring drought and will know where Eriq Zavaleta (15 G, 2 A) is at all times. They will attempt to limit Zavaleta’s looks on goal, but he is going to get his chances just like his predecessor Will Bruin, who scored two goals for the Houston Dynamo to knock the Chicago Fire out of the MLS Cup play-offs Wednesday night.
Indiana has a myriad of weapons around Zavaleta with their well-oiled midfield and have the luxury of bringing freshman Femi Hollinger-Jenzen, a first team All-American in high school, off the bench. Hollinger-Jenzen has the ability to change the game and the level does not drop off from the starting 11 at all.
While production from freshmen is a bonus for the Hoosiers, the Wildcats are counting on newcomers to produce in leading goal scorer Joey Calistri (6 G) and flank midfielder Cole Missimo who has seen more time of late with senior leader Kyle Schickel battling injuries. Missimo has all the tools, but you can see the “freshman” in his games where he looks at times disengaged or just slightly out of position defensively on the weak side which can decide a game in the Big Ten. If Schickel is not 100 percent, it will be paramount that Missimo uses his dynamic skillset and is locked in to help generate offense for a dismal (of late) Wildcat offense simultaneously keeping the IU outside backs parked in their half rather than joining the attack. Northwestern will also need to be pristine on set pieces where I could see the Wildcats manufacture a goal with strong targets in the box.
The Wildcats won’t go down easily, but I think Indiana I think Indiana is too talented to lose three straight Big Ten games and will take advantage of their second life at home.
Prediction: Indiana 2, Northwestern 1
MICHIGAN STATE (8-9-1, 3-2) @ MICHIGAN (7-8-1, 2-2-1)
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET
I called Michigan State a sleeper to contend in the Big Ten tournament in last week’s preview, but the key word there is tournament. Chapman woke up everybody sleeping and now the Spartans are in position to capture the regular season crown and a first round bye in the tournament with a win versus their in-state rivals and some help from the Hoosier squad they undressed a week ago.
The Spartans were opportunistic against Indiana and are starting to find a groove as an offense by committee with Adam Montague (4 G, 4 A), Domenic Barone (3 G, 2 A), Luke Norman (3 G, 2 A) and Chapman (3 G). The defense has also tightened led by the indispensable Kevin Cope, but Tyler Arnone (4 G, 3 A) and Fabio Pereira (3 G, 5 A) will keep them honest.
The Wolverines are on their first two game winning streak of the season, but it was against inferior competition. If the Spartans have a chance to win the conference come Saturday based on Thursday’s results, I believe they will complete their unlikely run against an inconsistent Michigan team looking towards the Big Ten tournament.
Prediction: Michigan State 1, Michigan 0
WISCONSIN (6-7-4, 1-3-1) @ OHIO STATE (6-9-2, 0-4-1)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET
Sunday’s match is between two teams that are pitiful away from their respective home soil (1-8-2 combined) and are long eliminated from the Big Ten regular season race. With this match being on Sunday afternoon and the Big Ten tournament, each team’s only chance to salvage their season and make the NCAA tournament, slated to kick off Wednesday afternoon, I don’t think John Trask nor John Bleum will go all out to get a result in this game. I’ll take the home side in this one, but for these teams it’s all about being ready come Wednesday.
Prediction: Ohio State 3, Wisconsin 2
It all comes down to the final week of Big Ten play to determine the champion. Can Northwestern repeat or will Indiana reclaim their dominance of the conference? Will Michigan State and Penn State have a say? We will see who wants it most starting Thursday night in Bloomington on BTN.
|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.|