History was made on Wednesday night when No. 24 Northwestern (14-1-3, 7-1-3 B1G) captured its first ever Big Ten title. A thrilling 1-0 overtime victory against Illinois in the regular season finale secured NU’s part in a three-way-tie between No. 20 Minnesota and No. 27 Penn State for first place in the conference.
The ‘Cats have enjoyed one of their best seasons ever, and in three years, they’ve transformed from a team with a losing record to a nationally ranked defensive powerhouse, as well as one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats’ defensive prowess is no secret. Led by junior goalkeeper Lauren Clem, they’ve forced a program-record 14 shutouts this season and boast some of the best defensive stats in the country. But the ‘Cats have an achilles heel: offense. In each of the four matches they’ve lost this year, NU hasn’t scored. Seven of NU’s 14 wins were 1-0, and all three ties were scoreless.
When compared with other top Big Ten teams like Minnesota and Penn State, the Wildcats simply don’t generate as many opportunities near goal. NU only averages 13.39 shots per game, while the Golden Gophers and Nittany Lions average 18.16 and 16.22, respectively.
“A lot of teams are having a hard time scoring on us, which is something we take pride in, but another thing we need to work on is finding that final pass in the attacking third, trying to get the ball in the back of the net,” sophomore defender Kayla Sharples said. “We’ve struggled a little bit with that.”
After getting a share of the conference regular season title, Sharples said that the team’s postseason goals are to win the Big Ten Tournament and get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In order to have this record-breaking postseason performance, though, the ‘Cats will need to find a balance between increasing offensive aggression and maintaining the defense that scares competitors away.
The Wildcats won’t be able to push from round to round in the upcoming tournaments without capitalizing on the offensive runs that they make for themselves. The solution? Going into postseason games with a mentality that targets getting the ball into enemy territory, taking more shots and not allotting a majority of their possession time in the backfield.
“We are going to try to focus on being more aware in the final third and trying to find people and push up more,” junior midfielder Kassidy Gorman said. “The forwards [will be] trying to make more runs ... We want to win, we want to move on, so we’re definitely going to try to create as many opportunities as we can.”
In the Big Ten Tournament, the Wildcats might be able to advance without a top offense, as their dominant defense has proven to be enough for success in the low-scoring conference. But in the NCAA Tournament, it will be difficult to slide by without a threatening offense.
Clem and the NU defense have been on fire this season, but they haven’t been tested by many of the nation’s top teams. Against these teams, the ‘Cats will need to keep pace with more electrifying offenses. If they can find ways to score goals and become more aggressive on offense, there’s no telling how far the ‘Cats could go - but they haven’t proven that they’re capable of that yet.
Head coach Michael Moynihan sees the imbalance in his team’s play, calling defense their “rock,” but doesn’t think it’s going to hinder their performance going forward. NU has already tasted success, and Moynihan is confident that his team will stay hungry and motivated, figuring out a way to advance through difficult postseason competition.
“I heard a couple people [on the team] make comments like ‘we don’t want to share a title, we want the Big Ten outright,’ and the Big Ten tournament is an opportunity to do that,” Moynihan said. “It’ll be tough, but why not? They also want to go further in the NCAA Tournament. They’re not just happy to be there, they want to keep making waves.”
NU will be tested immediately, hosting Nebraska in the Big Ten quarterfinals on Sunday at 3 p.m. The two teams played to a scoreless tie on Oct. 16, and the ‘Cats will have to set the tone for postseason play with an aggressive offense on Sunday. With one of the best defenses in the country, NU has already had a record-breaking season, and if the offense can find ways to score in the postseason, the Wildcats could break even more records.