If you weren’t paying attention, you should.
Flying high on an 11-game winning streak, a No. 2 Northwestern team headed into Iowa City last Friday to face its biggest test of the season. A 10-1, third-ranked Iowa team that led the country in goals per game and held the nation’s No. 1 spot for the season’s first four weeks awaited the Wildcats. Northwestern didn’t just pass that midterm, it aced it with flying colors. NU’s 2-0 win looked much more dominant than the score indicated. With that, here’s three takeaways from the victory, and three reasons to be incredibly excited about the team’s prospects come November.
Northwestern’s press up front is stifling
Iowa averaged 10 shots on goal heading into this game. Mind you, the Hawkeyes had already played four ranked teams on the road, one of which included defending champion and current No. 1 North Carolina. Iowa managed just four shots on target once the final whistle blew, and every single one came in the final nine minutes. It put up just one total in the first 51, which Annabel Skubisz didn’t even have to save because it was wide. This is the best offense in the country, and Northwestern embarrassed it for the vast majority of this game.
Looking at the shot total, you’d figure that NU’s defense made that happen with a Herculean performance. While the backs played well, that wasn’t the root of the shutout because Iowa rarely even approached the circle. It was Northwestern’s ferocious press from its forwards that constantly kept the ball in the Hawkeyes’ half. Sequences like these set the tone early:
When Iowa was trying to establish some early first-half rhythm with short passes to get something going offensively, NU didn’t let that happen. Olivia Bent-Cole and Peyton Halsey immediately kept Iowa’s Milly Short from getting some time to relax, as they denied two of her three visible passing lanes on that first touch. Short had to telegraph that first pass, which Chloe Relford quickly recognized.
Relford’s immediate pressure led to a rushed sequence of passing and trying to find lanes, and from there, Wildcat defenders prevented any clear paths into the opposing half from opening. Lindsey Frank’s coverage forced All-American Esme Gibson right into Lauren Wadas, who finally blew up the Iowa possession.
It’s not flashy, but it prevented the Hawkeyes from generating significant momentum on the other end. Northwestern dominated possession the entire game. Because of that, Iowa had to attempt longer passes in the second half once the ‘Cats got on the board to try and make something happen.
Yet, even when Tracey Fuchs’ team took the lead, it didn’t stop pressing up. Bent-Cole constantly showcased her speed to force Iowa into sloppy passing sequences that led to quick turnovers. That, in turn, created more corners and scoring opportunities. It’s been Northwestern’s bread and butter all fall, and no one’s really beat it yet. Even in NU’s lone loss against No. 5 Louisville, which came in August, it outshot the Cardinals 21-3. The forwards and midfielders are thriving both offensively and defensively in the attacking half, which is a great sign given they’ve faced stellar competition already.
Even when it isn’t at full strength, Northwestern is deep enough to beat elite teams
Sophomore back Maja Zivojnovic didn’t play against Iowa. She had become an unstoppable force on penalty corners, putting up an absurd five goals and 17 shots on goal in her last three contests. Because of that, it seemed like NU would be at a major disadvantage on scoring opportunities, especially against a lethal offense like Iowa’s.
The ‘Cats felt it early on. They drew five corners in the first half alone, but couldn’t get on the board in the first 30 minutes. Even though Northwestern hadn’t allowed a single shot on goal, it couldn’t capitalize on its dominance without Zivojnovic. It then came out of the break, drew a corner in 60 seconds and responded with this:
Beautiful, no notes pic.twitter.com/hGoXG7xbv6— Northwestern Field Hockey (@NUFHCats) October 6, 2023
Ilse Tromp, a first-year starter who had already showcased her corner-scoring prowess against Michigan State the week prior, made the game-changing play. Just when it was starting to feel like NU was feeling the loss of its second-year center back, Tromp cashed in the go-ahead goal past Mia Magnotta.
It’s already clear that Fuchs’ first-years and sophomores are immensely talented. But for Tromp to step up like this against a national contender, when NU was missing one of its best players in a key situation, is stellar. It suggests that even when the ‘Cats are at relatively full strength in the postseason, the first-years and sophomores can come up with some big moments. Northwestern is as deep a team as any in the nation, and as well-rounded as any that Fuchs has coached in recent memory.
By the way, did I mention that Northwestern is on a 12-game winning streak, has beaten six ranked opponents and is on the verge of a No. 1 ranking all without its 2022 First Team All-American who’s training for the Olympics and still has eligibility?
Northwestern is the team to beat in the Big Ten...
...and that’s saying a lot. Five of the nation’s top 10 teams come from the conference. Two more are in the top 20. This win propelled NU to 5-0 in Big Ten play, and it’s already beaten No. 7 Ohio State and No. 15 Michigan in addition to the Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes were the only team to score against the ‘Cats. The other four opponents? Northwestern outscored them 14-0.
That’s what separates the Wildcats from the only undefeated team in the country: No. 6 Rutgers. In each of their three conference wins, the Scarlet Knights won by a single goal, and two of those games went to at least double overtime. Granted, those came against No. 9 Maryland and No. 16 Penn State, but the ‘Cats have also played top competition.
Again, Northwestern dominated Iowa. It put up seven more shots on goal, and took nine more corners. This was a convincing victory against a top-three team in the nation. Rutgers doesn’t have that on its resume yet, which is what made last Friday’s tilt feel like a battle for the national No. 1 spot.
After it plays Ohio on Sunday, NU ends its regular season with a gauntlet. Fuchs and Co. face the Nittany Lions, the Scarlet Knights and the Terps in a span of seven days. That’s undoubtedly tough, but Northwestern now controls its own destiny. If it can win all three of those games, it can emerge with its first outright Big Ten regular season title since 1994.
Achieving that wouldn’t make or break the season; the 2021 NCAA title team finished fifth and the 2022 national runner-ups came third. But, going undefeated in the nation’s best conference — capping off what would be a 16-game, two-month win streak at that point — would just about guarantee that the 2023 iteration would be bound for a third straight NCAA Championship appearance. Now that the ‘Cats have handled the best opponent on their regular season with ease on the road, it’s not at all ridiculous to call that a real possibility.