The ball slowly flowed to the top of the box. Penn State’s 11 players were in their own 18-yard box, relentlessly trying to fend off pressure from Indiana’s men’s soccer forwards.
After a Nittany Lion deflection redirected Hoosier freshman forward Luka Bezerra’s strike, redshirted senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink came out of nowhere with his eyes laser-focused on goal. Wittenbrink fired a powerful, low blast that weaved through traffic and into the bottom right net.
Penn State senior guard Kris Shakes could only watch Indiana take a one-goal advantage. Unbeknownst to Shakes, that single goal would send his team home from the Big Ten tournament.
“We were kind of unlucky not to have a goal up to that point, I thought,” Wittenbrink said after Indiana’s 1-0 Big Ten quarterfinal win on Friday night. “I was trying to encourage everyone and make sure we were trying to take advantage of the opportunities we were getting.”
[Related: Indiana men’s soccer beats Penn State 1-0, will face Maryland in Big Ten Tourney semifinal]
Although they dominated the first half, as the Hoosiers have done time and time again this season, they entered the break with a rather troubling lead. It was eerily similar to the regular season finale against No. 7 Maryland less than a week ago.
But even as Penn State pushed Indiana to the brink in the final 10 minutes, the hosts never gave up the advantage. The Nittany Lions are in desperate need of an equaliser, eventually resorting to chippy play and flagrant violations.
Still, with a raucous home crowd behind them, eager to see their Hoosiers advance, head coach Todd Yeagley’s team softened the bitter feeling the Terrapins brought to Bill Armstrong Stadium.
With Terrapin’s 87th equalizer — which buried the Hoosiers’ regular-season title hopes — fresh in the team’s mind, redshirt senior defenseman Daniel Munie had a simple plan to close out Friday’s game.
“See the game, basically. Be smart. Don’t do anything stupid,” Munie said. “We needed this win on so many levels.”
Munie, who is seen as a calm but confident leader among his peers, is an undisputed talent in college football. Earlier on the eve of Friday’s game, Munie received his second straight Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.
As the Nittany Lions’ urgency for a goal increased, they began sending attackers forward en masse. It was often Munie, who plays with a combination of grace and reckless abandon, flying to eliminate danger.
Like Munie, Wittenbrink was named to the All-Big Ten first team before the game. Unlike the team captain, who has been highly regarded since his freshman year, Wittenbrink’s ongoing breakout campaign came in his final season in a crimson uniform.
His panache on the ball and his sudden movements that fool even the best defenders were on display on Friday night. With his winning goal, Wittenbrink has now found the back of the net eight times this season.
“Ryan, as he has been all year, was just a problem,” Yeagley said.
The hole left by former Indiana star Victor Bezerra, who is currently with Chicago Fire FC, was bound to be glaring this season. Both from a goalscoring and leadership perspective, the big question was how the Hoosiers would fare in his absence.
But with the emergence of Wittenbrink and the continued dominance of Munie, they are heading to the semi-finals of the Big Ten tournament. After defeating No. 8 seeded Northwestern on Friday night, Maryland set the stage for a quick rematch with the Hoosiers in the next round.
“The guys are excited to play in Maryland. We’ve played them in so many big games,” Yeagley said. “While a home game against Northwestern would have been great, I really think our guys at the back were hoping to play against Maryland.”
Munie echoed her coach’s sentiment.
” We can not wait to be there. We’re happy they won,” Munie said. “It will be good to go and play on their ground, obviously to get revenge on them.”
While the Big Ten Tournament is clearly the primary focus, it’s worth noting the NCAA Tournament implications of the Hoosiers’ victory. Although they are still not guaranteed a top 16 finish, they have all but blocked an opportunity to receive a general offer.
The Hoosiers’ semifinal game against the Terrapins is Wednesday, Nov. 9, in College Park, Maryland.