Two teams near the bottom of the league will be looking to trip up the Illini.
Illini Week in Review
On Friday, the Illinois Soccer team extended its winning streak to four games, and its shutout streak to three in a row, as they defeated Minnesota 1-0 at Illinois Soccer & Track Stadium. Sophomore Vanessa DiBernardo continued her clutch scoring, as for the second time in three games she contributed the lone goal of the match. The goal came in the 19th minute off a beautiful pass from junior Niki Read, who leads the Illini with six assists this season. Read talked with me about the goal, and about the team's collective defensive effort after the game.
Head coach Janet Rayfield was also pleased with the defensive performance, singling out a sliding save from midfielder Shayla Mutz in the closing minutes that stopped Minnesota's last quality scoring chance.
Then on Sunday, for the fourth consecutive game, the Illinois soccer team played a 1-0 game. For the fifth consecutive game, the Illini came out on top. In a physical game with Wisconsin, the Illini used a first half goal from sophomore Megan Pawloski, her sixth of the season, to earn the one-goal victory. After the start of the game, where both teams struggled to string together much possession, the Illini gradually took control as the first half wore on. Just after the first half media timeout, the Illini offense found the mark. Sophomore midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo served a ball down the right side. It appeared that it might be just out of the reach of junior forward Shayla Mutz, but she was able to get to it just before it crossed the end line and send it across in front of the net where Pawloski was waiting to put a sliding touch on the ball. She got it past Badger keeper Michelle Dalton for the goal at the 24:07 mark.
Both teams had a few quality chances after the lone goal, but both keepers were up to the challenge. Illini junior Steph Panozzo made five saves in net for her sixth shutout of the season, while her counterpart Dalton made made three saves for Wisconsin. The Illini outshot the Badgers 14-8 on the afternoon, while each team earned only two corner kicks on the afternoon. In a physical game that got a bit chippy later in the second half, Wisconsin was whistled for 20 fouls, with the Illini committing 11 fouls. Two Badgers, Alev Kelter and Monica Lam-Feist were booked by referee Khalef Allatayfeh for yellow cards in the second half.
The Illini maintain their position in second place with three regular season games remaining. Illinois travels to in-state rival Northwestern on Thursday, before visiting Nebraska on Sunday. I talked with Pawloski after the game about her game-winner and the team's winning streak. Janet Rayfield and I discussed the gray hairs this team is giving her with these 1-0 games.
Goalkeeper Steph Panozzo snagged Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after helping the Illini post a pair of shutouts on the weekend.
Big Ten Week in Review
Purdue 8 Indiana 2. No, that's not a misprint.
Illinois 1 Minnesota 0
Illinois 1 Wisconsin 0
Team of the Week: Illinois. The Illini are in the midst of a five-game winning streak after an 0-2-1 start in conference play. An NCAA bid isn't quite sewn up yet, but Illinois finishes with three winnable games on its schedule.
Team of the Weak: Ohio State. After reaching the College Cup (Final Four) a season ago, the Buckeyes are in serious danger of not making the NCAA Tournament field this season. They're now below .500 in the Big Ten after dropping home games to Iowa and Nebraska.
Big Ten Standings:
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Penn State (1). The Nittany Lions have rattled off seven straight wins after dropping their league opener at Wisconsin. They're in the NCAA Tournament field, and need just four more points to clinch at least a share of their fourteenth straight Big Ten title.
2. Illinois (3). The Illini have won five straight themselves, and it's the defense that is fueling the winning streak, as Illinois has four straight shutouts. They'll try to get the offense firing on all cylinders this weekend.
3. Michigan State (7). Once you get past the top two, it's very murky right now in the Big Ten. MSU got a big win over in-state rival Michigan, then escaped Indiana with a 2-1 overtime victory. They'll get my nod for #3 for the moment.
4. Wisconsin (2). The Badgers went 0-1-1 for the weekend. Why do they only drop to #4? Well, the teams behind them didn't do much to leapfrog them.
5. Minnesota (5). I'll keep the Gophers at this spot after they split on the road (L at Illinois, W at Northwestern). The Gophers are running out of chances to pick up wins and get above .500 overall.
6. Michigan (6). The Wolverines finish with three challenging games (H Ohio State, H Penn State, A Illinois). They probably need to win all three to have a shot at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
7. Iowa (8). Iowa finds themselves squarely on the tournament bubble after a win at Ohio State and a loss at Penn State. But the fact we're talking about the Hawkeyes and the NCAA Tournament in the same sentence is a huge improvement over prior years.
8. Ohio State (4). OSU is pulling a Tom Petty (Free Fallin') at the moment. The good news is that OSU still controls its own destiny for the NCAA Tournament because of some good results on their non-conference schedule. They've got a big weekend in Michigan coming up.
9. Purdue (9). I could bump the Boilers above OSU right now, based on head-to-head results, but I'll keep them here for now. That was an impressive outburst against Indiana, but they followed it up with a home loss to Michigan.
10. Nebraska (11). A good win at Ohio State bumps them back above Indiana this week. They'll look to play spoiler this weekend at home against Iowa and Illinois.
11. Indiana (10). The Hoosiers got absolutely blasted in their rivalry game at Purdue, then let one slip away at home against Michigan State.
12. Northwestern (12). There's no quit in this Wildcat team, as they used a late goal to salvage a tie against Wisconsin, before battling hard in a 1-0 loss to Minnesota.
To the Polls
Just the links this week:
What's on Tap
Last week was my best prediction week of the conference season, as I went 9-2-1 in my picks. That brings the season total to 81-29-8. Let's see if I can keep the momentum going this week. My picks are in bold.
Illinois at Northwestern. The Wildcats have given Illinois problems, but they got a taste of windy conditions last weekend and should be ready for the conditions on Lake Michigan.
Iowa at Nebraska. This is a huge game for the Hawkeyes, but the Huskers played very well at Ohio State and Penn State last weekend. I'll give them the nod at home.
Ohio State at Michigan. I see this one as a tossup. Both teams really need it for their NCAA Tournament chances, but when in doubt, go with the home team.
Penn State at Michigan State. I just can't see anyone derailing the Nittany Lions right now, though it will be fun to watch Maya Hayes and Laura Heyboer on the field at the same time.
Purdue at Wisconsin. The Badgers also really need to get back on the winning track. Purdue and Indiana at home should be the tonic they need.
Indiana at Minnesota. Two wins for the Gophers this weekend would get them back to .500 overall and give them at least a chance at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Illinois at Nebraska. A defense coming into the week with four straight shutouts vs. All-American forward Morgan Marlborough. A great matchup.
Ohio State at Michigan State. MSU has a better record than most bubble candidates for the NCAA field, but they really need to add a couple more victories to sew up their bid.
Penn State at Michigan. The Wolverines will throw everything (and everyone) they have at the PSU attack, but I don't think it will be enough to stop them.
Purdue at Minnesota. Look for the Gophers' late season surge to continue against an up-and-down Purdue squad.
Indiana at Wisconsin. The Badgers should also be able to sweep this weekend.
Northwestern at Iowa. Northwestern has been playing better lately, but I like the Hawkeyes to bounce back at home on Sunday.
On the Air
No more broadcasts currently scheduled, but we'll see what happens when we get to postseason play.
Thanks for reading.