Indiana Men’s Soccer starts second half of Big Ten schedule with showdown against Rutgers

Entering the second half of its eight-game conference schedule, Indiana men’s soccer finds itself in desperate need of wins in pursuit of its 18th Big Ten regular-season title.

The Hoosiers are 1-1-2 in their first four games. After opening the Big Ten roster with a road loss to Ohio State and letting Michigan State come from behind to draw, Indiana picked up a morale-boosting win over Northwestern, but again shared the points with Michigan.

Those results give the Hoosiers five points out of a possible 12, and the team sits fifth in the conference standings. With No. 8 Maryland leading the league by 10 points, Indiana has almost no choice but to close out its schedule perfectly in hopes of a fight.

The good news? Three of the Hoosiers’ last four Big Ten games face the current top three teams in the conference. The results of the rest of the way will have a double importance.

Their first chance to shake the table: a game against third-place Rutgers – seven points – at noon Sunday in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Many excuses could be made as to why Indiana came out flat in the first half – the Big Ten slate grind still has a physical impact, parity around the league could arguably increase or the Hoosiers learn yet to make the best use of all of their pieces given their tremendous depth.

While all of that could have easily contributed to the Hoosiers’ slow start, the loss of senior redshirt defender Daniel Munie to a hamstring injury before the Big Ten roster was undoubtedly the difference. Without the team leader anchoring the back line, the other Hoosier defenders rotated and sometimes abandoned their natural positions.

Head coach Todd Yeagley said many of his defensemen can play effectively in different positions along the back line. Senior defenders Brett Bebej and Nyk Sessock thrived switching sides on the wings and replacing at center back while Munie was out, but Indiana ended up conceding too often.

The Hoosiers haven’t held a scoreless opponent in the five games Munie has watched. In Munie’s first full game against the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday, October 5, Indiana’s defense held its 1-0 lead for 65 minutes.

[Related: Indiana men’s soccer retains in-state bragging rights with 1-0 win over Notre Dame]

In what will likely be low-scoring competitive games against the likes of Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland, Indiana will need the same level of maturity and discipline to come out on top.

However, there is much more to play than just a conference title. Standing at 5-2-3, the Hoosiers need to close the season on a positive note to earn their 36th straight NCAA Tournament appearance and secure a high seed for the bracket.

The Big Ten tournament presents the Hoosiers with another big opportunity to boost their resumes and win at least one of two possible conference titles, but there’s no need to pressure themselves before that.

Going into Sunday’s game, Indiana has won five of its last six meetings against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights beat the Hoosiers 2-1 at Bill Armstrong Stadium last season, but the Hoosiers got their revenge in the Big Ten tournament quarter-finals with a 1-0 victory in Bloomington.

After starting the conference roster with wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin, Rutgers has slipped in recent games with a 2-2 draw at Ohio State and a 3-2 loss at Maryland. With Rutgers falling to poor form, the three points are up for grabs for Indiana, who are back to full health.

The Hoosiers’ restored back line will be tasked with containing the Scarlet Knights’ potent offense, averaging 2.36 goals per game with solid play that has provided assists on 25 of their 26 total goals this season. Senior striker MD Myers and senior midfielder Jackson Temple lead the Scarlet Knights with nine and five goals respectively.

The Rutgers defense has posted just one shutout in 11 games, however. The Scarlet Knights’ shaky back line will give the resurgent Hoosiers, trailing senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink’s five goals, enough chances to follow the scoreboard if the game turns into a shootout.

Indiana had its first shot at 800 total wins in program history on Sunday.

Follow journalists Kamil Gut (@GutKamil) and Matt Press (@MatthewPress23) for updates throughout Indiana’s men’s soccer season.