Sitting at No. 3 in the nation with a nine-game winning streak, Northwestern field hockey is rounding into shape. It beat No. 11 Ohio State 4-3 on the road last Friday, and soundly crushed Princeton 4-0 two days later. Here are three takeaways from those games, particularly from Northwestern’s road Big Ten opener:
Northwestern can win in different ways, and that’s a great sign
Heading into its clash with then-No. 12 Ohio State, Northwestern had been tested; Duke, Boston College and UMass are all ranked, and two of those games were tight. But, OSU was the team’s first quality Big Ten opponent, as well as its first true conference road game. Like Northwestern, the high-flying Buckeyes entered last Friday with just one loss — a 2-1 defeat at the hands of No. 5 Louisville as their only blemish.
At that point, Northwestern was on a seven-game win streak, and hadn’t played in a contest decided by fewer than two goals in almost three weeks. Its defense had allowed one goal in its last five games. That changed instantly last Friday, when Julie Rodijk took advantage of a deflection off Annabel Skubisz to put Ohio State up 1-0 just two minutes into the game. Like the Duke game, Northwestern had to overcome an early deficit.
Unlike the Duke contest, Northwestern didn’t immediately seize momentum after a bad start. The Buckeyes responded to Ella Kokinis’ game-tying goal in the second quarter with a penalty stroke nine minutes later. It eventually took a few superhuman plays from Olivia Bent-Cole (more on that later) to really put the ‘Cats over the edge in a 4-3 win.
Skubisz and NU’s defense weren’t great, conceding three goals — two of which came on penalty strokes — on just four shots on goal. Ohio State was just the second team to manage more than 10 shots against Northwestern all season. Yet, the ‘Cats found a way to come back multiple times and survive a slugfest with another potent offense. Given that No. 1 Iowa is still averaging north of 4.5 goals a game, it’s encouraging to know that Tracey Fuchs’ team can survive a rough defensive game against a tough opponent.
Plus, to follow that up by taking care of business against Princeton is excellent. No trap games for this team!
Goals aside, the offensive pace continues to look great...
Northwestern leads the Big Ten — which still has seven teams in the top 20, by the way — with 19.4 shots per contest. The team stats on NU’s website go back to 2014, and the ‘Cats haven’t had a higher mark since then. Plus, 60.8% of those shots have been on goal. That’s the second-highest clip in the conference behind Ohio State, and it’s about the same rate as the 2021 title-winning team.
Through 10 games, Northwestern has played like an analytically-minded person’s dream. When a talented team gets a ton of shots off, especially on net, it’s bound to score more with more opportunities. And of course, when you score more, you win more.
That didn’t change against OSU and Princeton. The ‘Cats put up 13 shots on goal in Columbus, and 20 total. They then erupted for 26 attempts and 19 SOG against the Tigers, both of which were season highs. In that contest, Maja Zivojnovic placed almost as many shots on target (six) as the entire Princeton team (seven).
Obviously, those numbers should begin to go down with late-season play coming around against the sharks of the Big Ten. But, to maintain that clip against a team like Ohio State speaks volumes about the offensive firepower at Fuchs’ disposal. Plus, the Buckeyes are also great on offense, so beating them at their own game on the road is especially tough to do.
And the best part is...
...it’s by committee!
Northwestern’s production has come from a bulk of players, and at every level. The ‘Cats have three players averaging over two shots on goal per contest: Bent-Cole, Peyton Halsey and Zivojnovic. Lauren Wadas isn’t too far behind, having put 15 of her own on target. For Halsey, 20 of her 28 shots have been on goal, and she’s netted eight of them for a shot percentage of .286. Each of those players has a different role with different minutes, but that’s still very impressive.
In the past, Northwestern has certainly had multiple players who were capable of stepping up as top goal-scoring options; it’s why the ‘Cats have made two straight runs to the NCAA Championship. However, guessing the No. 1 threat hasn’t been this unpredictable since before Bente Baekers got to Evanston. That’s a nightmare for opposing coaches to gameplan for.
While the offense tends to run through Halsey, multiple players can step up as a dominant offensive leader. Against Ohio State, it was Bent-Cole, who did her best LeBron impression in his home state with the way she took over the game in the second half. With the game evened up at two in the fourth quarter, she did this. This is a true first-year in her first week of classes that we’re talking about...
"She's dangerous"— Northwestern Field Hockey (@NUFHCats) September 22, 2023
'Cats take their first lead on a goal from Olivia Bent-Cole!
Q4 | Northwestern 3, Ohio State 2 pic.twitter.com/Xx1ePNkiZQ
She broke two defenders’ ankles and beat the goalie in about five seconds. That’s making magic happen. However, she wasn’t done:
More like Olivia Bent-GOAL— Northwestern Field Hockey (@NUFHCats) September 22, 2023
Q4 | Northwestern 4, Ohio State 2 pic.twitter.com/x2pOzgkKsi
Down one late, the Buckeyes have an empty net here. Even though they’re passing it near the back end, the last thing they want to do is get careless. But Bent-Cole’s pressure created this out of thin air. She forces that first pass backward toward OSU’s own net by simply attacking Delaney Lawler. Lawler’s pass wasn’t great, but Bent-Cole’s elite speed really made the difference. With Northwestern up one, most might play that situation conservatively and retreat, but OBC did the opposite. It paid off in a huge way, and it meant even more when the Buckeyes tacked on their third goal about a minute later.
Against Princeton, Zivojnovic absolutely flourished on corners. All three of her goals came off those plays for the first hat trick of her Northwestern career. Alia Marshall, who leads the Big Ten in assists per game, spearheaded every one of those with her playmaking. Halsey dictated the attack both as a facilitator and scorer, assisting two of those corners and putting one through herself. The Wildcats fired on all cylinders with goal scorers and facilitators at every level, which is another great sign.
It also opens up opportunities for others, like Kokinis’ goal against Ohio State. The first-year had a one-on-one with the goalkeeper in transition. There’s young firepower all over the place, and it starts with the Big Ten Freshman of the Week and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week. Stopping Halsey alone isn’t a winning formula for good teams, because Northwestern has already proven that a ton of players can take on that goal-scoring role.