Northwestern’s school-record 668-minute scoreless streak was shattered last weekend as they took just one point from their first conference road trip.
But after the disappointing result against Minnesota, the 21st-ranked Wildcats (7-1-2) took down 20th-ranked Penn State 1-0 Thursday night in Evanston for their biggest win of the season thus far.
The Wildcats hadn’t dropped the Nittany Lions since 2013. Despite a 16-2 shot differential and 11-1 corner differential, Kayla Sharples’ goal with 9 seconds remaining in the first half would prove to be all Northwestern’s defense needed. Even down key senior defender Nikia Smith, missing her first contest of the year with an undisclosed injury, the Wildcats, stepped up, led by Sharples and fellow senior center back Hannah Davison. The group was credited with six blocked shots as a whole, and Northwestern’s tenured backline pairing had near-countless key clearances.
The shot disparity doesn’t look great, but the quality of chances for Penn State was relatively inconsistent. The Nittany Lions finished with just six shots on goal, and only a couple of those actually troubled stud first year goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood, who turned in her seventh shutout of the year. Wood flashed her ability in other ways, as well: she was flawless in coming out of her net to grab away potential crosses, and continually nailed booming punts and goal kicks to keep the pressure off Northwestern’s back line.
Save number 5️⃣ was a big one for Mackenzie Wood. pic.twitter.com/JqZvNLVHTE— Northwestern Soccer (@NUWSoccer) September 21, 2018
The Nittany Lions struggled to get anything going on their set pieces, going without anything close to a shot on goal on their eleven corners. Meanwhile, the Wildcats earned just one corner all game and it ended up in the back of the net. Sharples, up from her defensive role as usual, had her initial header stuffed but still found a way to poke it through to the back of the net amid chaos:
This win for Northwestern looms large not just in the context of this season and regaining short-term momentum, but for the program as a whole. Last year, the team suffered a demoralizing 3-0 loss to these same Nittany Lions, before losing again to the then-No. 11 team in the country 2-1 in the Big Ten Championship. That game, with its long delay and venue change in the middle of the first half, left a bad taste in the mouth of returning Wildcats. Add that to Penn State’s prestige as a program (they’re the only Big Ten team to ever win a national championship; as Wood said in her brief postgame interview, “I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since I committed here, freshman year of high school. It was always my dream to beat Penn State, because they’re the big Big Ten team.”), and this win becomes monumental for Northwestern going forwards.
The win takes the Wildcats to four points in three Big Ten games. Next, they face Ohio State on Sunday at noon. The Buckeyes were ranked early in the season, but have since crashed out, and lost 4-0 to Penn State last week.