Janet Rayfield's high-powered Illini gear up for league play this weekend.
Illini Week in Review
The Illinois soccer team entered its final week of non-conference play looking to add a quality win to its resume. After a split against Pepperdine and Oregon, they may still be looking. Friday's game against a rising Pepperdine squad who had already defeated 2010 NCAA Tournament squads California and Michigan was first on the agenda. Despite the first career goal for redshirt freshman Janelle Flaws and a tally for sophomore Megan Pawloski, the Illini defense wasn't stout enough in a 4-2 loss to the Waves. In her postgame comments, Janet Rayfield indicated her displeasure with the defense all over the field, and not just the back line. Pepperdine would tie host LSU on Sunday, sending the Waves back to Malibu with a 6-0-2 record on the season.
The Illini's Sunday opponent, the Oregon Ducks, entered Sunday's game 4-1-1 after losing 1-0 to the host Tigers on Friday. Oregon's best result against a quality opponent had been a scoreless tie vs. Santa Clara the week before the LSU tournament. The Illini rebounded nicely against the Ducks, getting a pair of goals from Pawloski, and perhaps more importantly, putting together a clean sheet on defense in a decisive 5-0 win. Also getting in the scoring column for the Illini were Jackie Guerra (her first career goal), Julie Ewing and Vanessa DiBernardo (her ninth of the season).
So, the Illini finish up non-conference play with a solid 6-2 record, but they're still looking for their first win over a likely NCAA Tournament team. With Oregon playing in the Pac 12, their strength of schedule may be good enough, but they'll need to pick up a quality win or two along the way, which is never easy in the Pac 12. Toledo has been one of the better teams in the MAC the past few seasons, but they appear to have fallen from that quality this season. Let's take a look at each of the Illini's non-conference opponents as they rank in the Massey Ratings, college soccer's closest equivalent to the Sagarin Ratings. These ratings measure a team's strength based on several factors, including strength on offense and defense, strength of schedule, and because we're still early in the season, results from last year. That last component will diminish as the season goes on, until it's gone at the end of the season. By the way, Illinois currently ranks #39 according to Massey:
W 2-1 OT
With 321 teams in Division 1, the Illini have played all but one of their games against the top half of teams according to Massey, but have just one win over a team ranked in the top 100. The Big Ten will provide plenty of opportunities to improve that total, as eleven of the twelve teams currently rank in the top 100 of Massey's ratings. Winless Northwestern is the lone exception at #134.
Big Ten Week in Review
Pepperdine 4 Illinois 2
Illinois 5 Oregon 0
Team of the Week: Nebraska. Normally, a 1-1 weekend isn't good enough to earn this spot. However, the Huskers went on the road into ACC country and played very well against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, two teams that should be playing in the NCAA Tournament come November. The defense still needs some work, but the Huskers will be a dangerous team in the Big Ten.
Team of the Weak: Minnesota. The Gophers' inability to finish came back to haunt them on Sunday in a loss to DePaul. Despite controlling the run of play for most of the afternoon, they only scored a single goal. That wasn't enough, as the Blue Demons tied it late, then won in overtime. With a 3-5 record heading into Big Ten play, Minnesota likely needs seven wins to be in contention for an NCAA bid, and that could be tough.
Big Ten Power Rankings (last week in parenthesis)
1. (1) Penn State. There's no shame in dropping an overtime game to Central Florida, which has become one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Especially when you follow it up with a win at #7 Virginia on Sunday. Maya Hayes continues to score in bunches, and she'll have to keep up that pace, as the Nittany Lions lost Tani Costa for the season with a torn ACL.
2. (2) Wisconsin. The Badgers had done a pretty good job of containing Milwaukee forward Sarah Hagen over the last few seasons. Until Sunday. The All-American scored both Panther goals in a 2-1 overtime win. Again, no shame in losing to Milwaukee on the road, but being outshot 24-10 may be cause for concern.
3. (4) Ohio State. Not that the Buckeyes were overly impressive, needing two overtimes to beat Ohio 1-0 on Sunday, but I'll move them above Illinois for now by virtue of their win at West Virginia earlier in the non-conference season. They'll need to get some more offense in general, and from Paige Maxwell in particular (only one goal so far) if they're going to have a shot at the conference title.
4. (3) Illinois. I really feel like I could flip a coin with the Illini and OSU right now, but we'll put Illinois at #4 for this week. A loss to a very good Pepperdine team showed that there's still work to be done defensively, and the 5-0 blasting of Oregon shows they can score with just about anyone in the country. An interesting matchup with Iowa awaits on Sunday.
5. (5) Michigan State. MSU picked up its best non-conference win of the season over UC Santa Barbara on Sunday by a 4-1 score. The Gauchos aren't bad, but they're probably not an NCAA Tournament team either. MSU should have no problem with Detroit tonight before they open Big Ten play this weekend.
6. (9) Nebraska. The Huskers get the biggest boost of the week, after an impressive trip through ACC territory. Morgan Marlborough continues to show why she's an All-American candidate. They should be able to handle Northwestern in their first Big Ten game this Sunday.
7. (6) Michigan. Greg Ryan's squad actually played better in Sunday's 1-1 tie vs. Central Michigan than they did in a 1-0 win over Western Michigan on Friday. CMU is probably the best the MAC has to offer this season, while the Broncos are a step below that. WMU outshot the Wolverines 22-15 on Friday night.
8. (10) Iowa. I'm still not convinced. 7-0 is nothing to sneeze at (probably 8-0 after tonight), but this fits the pattern we've seen from Iowa the past couple of seasons. I've moved them up a couple of spots because of how convincingly they beat an Iowa State team that appears to be improved from last year. If they beat Illinois at home on Sunday, they'll move up more.
9. (7) Minnesota. The Gophers didn't really have a bad loss on their resume until Sunday, when they lost a late 1-0 lead and fell 2-1 in overtime to DePaul. They need to pull up quick from this nosedive, or their NCAA hopes will crash and burn. They shouldn't have any trouble getting up for Ohio State on Sunday, but will it be enough?
10. (8) Purdue. If it wasn't for bad luck, the Boilermakers wouldn't have any luck at all. Well, some of it is bad luck, as they've played three straight overtime games and gone 0-2-1. They also lack a dynamic goal scorer, as Alex Hairston is their only player with more than one goal this season, and she has just two.
11. (11) Indiana. IU beat Xavier 1-0 on Friday night while controlling the run of play, then played Marquette tough on Sunday before falling 2-1. The Hoosiers like to strike early, as their goal on Sunday came just 37 seconds into the match. Michigan comes to Bloomington on Sunday, and the way the Wolverines have been playing, that's a winnable game for IU.
12. (12) Northwestern. The Wildcats have one more chance to pick up a non-conference win today against Loyola. I didn't expect Northwestern to be a contender this season, but I certainly didn't anticipate this type of start either.
To the Polls
Penn State continues to rise after their win over Virginia on Sunday. The Top Drawer Tournament 64 has the Nittany Lions up to #19 this week. Other Big Ten teams here are Ohio State (#23), Illinois (#27), Wisconsin (#34), Michigan State (#37) and Michigan (#42).
In this week's NSCAA Top 25, Penn State re-enters the poll at #21 this week. Illinois falls three spots to #23, while Ohio State also drops three notches to #25. Iowa and Wisconsin are receiving votes.
Meanwhile in the NSCAA Great Lakes rankings, there was a bit of a shakeup, as Milwaukee is the new number one team (and rightfully so). Penn State is #2, followed by Illinois (#3), Ohio State (#4), Iowa (#5), Wisconsin (#6), Michigan State (#8), Michigan (#9) and Indiana (#10).
Penn State is the lone Big Ten team in this week's Soccer America Top 25, moving up nine spots to #16 this week.
Finally, in this week's Soccer Times Top 25, Penn State moves up just one spot to #20, while Ohio State falls two spots to #22. Illinois drops out of the poll after being #24 last week. The Illini are receiving votes, along with Iowa (well, one vote for the Hawkeyes actually).
What's on Tap
Wow...Sunday was a BAD day for my picks, as I went just 6-5-1. My excuse is that four of the games I picked incorrectly went to overtime. Oh well. Overall the week, I was a rather pedestrian 13-7-2 with my selections, making my overall record 50-12-2. I was overdue for a bad week, so I'll just try not to have two bad ones in a row. Here we go, starting with a bunch of Wednesday games, with my picks in bold.
Northern Iowa at Iowa. Congratulations on an 8-0 non-conference season, Hawkeyes. We'll see if it translates into better Big Ten results this time around.
Detroit at Michigan State. Heyboer, Stander and company get one more non-conference tune-up.
Loyola at Northwestern. I feel it...win number one for the Wildcats comes today.
Dayton at Ohio State. Wisconsin picked up a victory at Dayton, I think the Buckeyes will do the same at home.
Indiana State at Purdue. The streak of overtime games ends here with a win.
Central Michigan at Wisconsin. CMU played Michigan even in Ann Arbor, both in run of play and on the scoreboard. I think Wisconsin is better.
Penn State at Wisconsin. This won't be easy, but I don't think Paula Wilkins has her squad peaking quite yet. PSU in a close one.
Michigan at Indiana. I don't like the non-conference season that Michigan had. They seem to have taken a step back from where they were at the end of last season.
Illinois at Iowa. If the Hawkeyes win here to open Big Ten play, I'll start to believe they have a real shot at the NCAA tournament.
Michigan State at Purdue. Sparty won 2-0 last season in East Lansing, and I just haven't seen enough improvement from Purdue to pick them here.
Ohio State at Minnesota. Two teams that have struggled to score at times in 2011, but the Gophers have struggle more, as they have scored more than one goal just once so far this season (vs. South Dakota St.).
Northwestern at Nebraska. Welcome to the Big Ten, Cornhuskers. Morgan Marlborough and company should have enough to get the win here.
I'm picking more road teams than usual, but I think that's what the matchups dictate. We'll see what happens in the opening weekend of conference play.
On the Air
I'm not making the trip to Iowa City this weekend, but I will be talking to Janet Rayfield this week in an interview that will air at halftime of the Illinois football game against Arizona State on Saturday night. I'll get the coach's thoughts on how her team has performed in the non-conference season and how they stack up in the Big Ten opener at Iowa. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts on the blog either here or via e-mail. Thanks for reading.