Starting off the week in Madison, your Northwestern Wildcats (2-1 B1G) were taking on the Wisconsin Badgers (0-3 B1G) on Feb 23. Seeking their first win of the season, the Wildcats were out to prove their prowess. Entering with that in mind, they certainly got the job done, with 4 different players netting the ball in the game for a decisive 5-2 victory.
Right off the bat, the Northwestern Wildcats were off and rolling, applying a lot of pressure on the Badgers, and eventually working their way downfield ending with a conversion by Richie Bennett to put the Cats up 1-0 at the 15-minute mark. Less than five minutes after that, sophomore forward Ugo Achara Jr got on the board himself, slotting a goal putting Northwestern up 2-0. At this point, the Wildcats felt very confident, their defense was strong stemming from the back and their offense was percolating. Around 10 minutes following his first goal, Achara found the back of the net yet again, and the Wildcats would enter the half up 3-0. The first three goals for Northwestern had a touch of Achara’s brilliance attached, whether they were scored or assisted by him.
The second half of the game began slowly, but after 12 minutes of scrappy play, Wisconsin managed to find the back of the net with a goal by Henri Tophoven. For a brief moment, there was a sense of ‘do the Badgers have a chance in this one?’ That, however, was settled down just seven minutes later when the Wildcats' Logan Weaver was assisted by Joseph Arena and Bardia Kimiavi to score his first goal of the season. Following this, to put Northwestern up for good just three minutes later, Spencer Howard hammered a shot into the back of the net and put Northwestern up 5-1. While the Badgers would slot one more goal just 30 seconds later, it was too little too late. Northwestern would go on to earn their first win of the season by a margin of 5-2.
Just a mere few days later, the Wildcats were back at home seeking a massive win against the Indiana Hoosiers (2-1 B1G). It had been 10 years since Northwestern had beaten Indiana, and there was an immaculate feeling in the air of Ryan Fieldhouse that made it seem like the stage was set. Starting off the game with a moment of silence yet again, everyone kneeled together, united by equality for all. Before diving into the game itself, let me tell you to get some popcorn, get comfortable, and get excited because while this game was anchored by the defense, the bountiful opportunities made it wild!
Northwestern started with the ball at the outset of the game, but Indiana quickly maintained control and set the pace for the first five minutes of the game. Beginning with a breakaway downfield that was stopped with a collision with a Northwestern defender, I knew we were in for a scrappy style of play. Once the Wildcats got their feet beneath them, they began applying pressure in the final third with first-year Joseph Arena trying to cause a ruckus for the Hoosier defense. At the 7 minute mark, Northwestern crept down the right-wing, got the ball into the corner, and tried an acrobatic pass across the 6yd box that was nearly converted but eventually cleared by the Hoosiers. It was evident that our Wildcats came to play, crisp passes were everywhere and possession was the name of the game, especially with Indiana coming into the game undefeated with back-to-back 3-0 victories; Northwestern could not afford simple mistakes on a team that could net a goal quickly.
The first prominent set piece of the game came with 35 minutes left in the half: a Northwestern opportunity from around 30 yards out was served into the box but deflected by the Hoosiers. After this, Indiana tried to rapidly get on the counter, but Northwestern’s right back stepped up to a slightly overpowered pass and was able to shut down that counter-attack opportunity. Moments later, Northwestern may have been a bit too casual, swinging the ball around their back-line looking for an opportunity to advance, and Indiana caught them off guard and stepped in on a bad pass leading to an attack. Fortunately, the Wildcats recovered quickly, with senior goaltender Miha Miskovic making a brilliant save just off of his line to keep the score 0-0. With 23 minutes left in the first half, Northwestern had the purest opportunity of the game thus far – a ball came across the middle for a shot on goal, and an even better save was made for the Hoosiers. Entering halftime, the score was still 0-0, regardless of the 12 total shots on goal in the first half (Indiana 10, Northwestern 2).
To start off the second half, Indiana kicked-off from the middle Northwestern’s Shevchenko-styled pressure from the wingers immediately put them under the gun. The possession was very strong for the Wildcats – although their opportunities had been limited in the first half, the second half would mark a clear change. Just 10 minutes into the half, Achara blazed past the Indiana defense on the left wing for a near opportunity that he stopped when attempting to cut-back towards the center and orient himself on the pitch. While constantly knocking on the door, the almost surefire goal opportunity for the Wildcats came with 33 minutes left in the half. Eric Smits took a corner for the Wildcats that went just long, but Northwestern recovered and sent back into the box for service. After bobbling around in the box, the Wildcats launched a rocket that clanked off the crossbar and nearly went in. After clearing it out, the Hoosiers definitely took a sigh of relief at that near picturesque chance. After 10 more minutes of scrappy play and possession, Indiana had a brilliant chance on goal, a direct shot from the center of the pitch was blazing towards Miskovic point-blank. Luckily, he was able to react quick enough and deflect the ball up into the air, lead upwards and grasp the ball in his hands. This was clearly a game of swings, but within those swings, neither team had been able to fully convert. But that was all bound to change soon enough.
The next 20 minutes went by in a blur, chance after chance cleared out by opposing defenses and counter after counter shut down. With two minutes left on the clock though, Northwestern had a throw-in from around the 5yd line. Could this be their final opportunity of the game in the box? Whether it would be or not, the Wildcats treated it as though this was all they had. The throw came into the box slightly long, a collision-header from multiple players kept the ball bouncing around and Achara Jr. stepped up, made contact with the ball and ripped it into the back of the net. The feeling was electric. The team jumped off of the bench, and in clutch-time, the Wildcats came through. With 20 seconds left, an Indiana set-piece was the final chance, but the fierce Wildcat defense was able to clear it out as the time disappeared from the scoreboard.
That was it – the Wildcats did it. They beat the Hoosiers for the first time since 2011 and were 2-0 on the week! Not bad for our Northwestern Wildcats, is it? We look forward to what’s in store for our team to come in the future and we certainly showed up and showed out as to our potential. As always, Go ’Cats!