The winning streak continues for the Orange and Blue, and the Illini have clinched second place in the Big Ten.
Illini Week in Review
Last weekend's games at Northwestern and Nebraska were both contests that the Illini were favored to win. However, the Wildcats have always played the Illini tough, especially in Evanston, and the Cornhuskers are a very dangerous offensive team that had won at Ohio State the previous week. So, Illinois couldn't take anything for granted, and they didn't. On Thursday, the Illini struck first at Lakeside Field with a Marissa Mykines goal in the 27th minute and carried the 1-0 advantage into halftime. In the second half, Illinois would add goals from Vanessa DiBernardo and Shayla Mutz to close out the scoring in a 3-0 triumph. For the fifth straight game, the Illini shut out their opposition to improve to 6-2-1 in the Big Ten and 12-4-1 overall.
Then on Sunday, Illinois would again strike first in Lincoln, and again it was Mykines with the first goal of the game. Off an Illinois throw-in, the senior from Spokane, Washington dribbled toward the top of the box and blasted a shot into the upper 90 to give the Illini the lead. Senior defender Jenna Carosio added a another first-half goal off of a free kick in the 40th minute to give the Illini a 2-0 halftime advantage. The Cornhuskers would cut the lead in half early in the second period on a goal from their All-American, Morgan Marlborough. Sophomore Vanessa DiBernardo closed out the scoring with an important insurance goal in the 87th minute, her 15th of the season. Illinois would keep Nebraska off the scoreboard for the final 3+ minutes for a 3-1 victory. That win clinched second place in the Big Ten for the Illini with a 7-2-1 league mark, and improved Illinois' overall record to 13-4-1.
Sunday's game also marked a couple of milestones for the Illini. Their current seven-game winning streak matches the 2004 team's school record streak to open that season. Their 533:36 of shutout soccer is the second longest in program history, finishing 77:32 short of the team record set in 2003. Goalkeeper Steph Panozzo captured her second straight Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award, sharing the honor this week with Wisconsin goalkeeper Michelle Dalton. Individually, DiBernardo tied Emily Brown for the second most goals and points in a season for an Illini with 15 and 35, respectively. Brown also holds the highest mark in program history in both categories with 18 goals and 40 points in 1999.
Illinois closes out the regular season with their senior night game against Michigan this Saturday. The match starts at 6pm. The Wolverines are fighting for their postseason lives, as they need a win to try to claim a spot in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan has beaten the Illini the last two seasons, winning 3-2 in Ann Arbor last year.
Big Ten Week in Review
Illinois 3 Northwestern 0
Illinois 3 Nebraska 1
Team of the Week: Penn State. With their wins over the weekend, the Nittany Lions clinched their 14th consecutive Big Ten regular season championship. They've rattled off nine straight wins after falling to Wisconsin in the league opener. It's a remarkable streak. Congratulations to Erica Walsh and her team.
Team of the Weak: Michigan. Coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance a season ago, it looked like the arrow was pointing up for the Wolverines. But a weak non-conference schedule and some missteps early in the conference season made last weekend's games at home against Ohio State and Penn State must wins if Michigan wanted to earn an at-large NCAA bid this season. After losing both, they'll need a win at Illinois and some help to get into the Big Ten tournament and keep their postseason hopes alive.
Big Ten Standings
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Penn State (1). Long live the king.
2. Illinois (2). A pair of road wins clinches second place for the Illini, who should be in position for their eight NCAA bid in the last nine season.
3. Wisconsin (4). A pair of decisive wins last weekend bumps the Badgers up one spot, as they clinch no worse than the #4 seed in the Big Ten tournament. They might want to get another win vs. Iowa to shore up their chances for an NCAA at-large bid.
4. Michigan State (3). The Spartans had Penn State down 1-0 at the half in East Lansing, but couldn't hold the Nittany Lions down for an entire game. Their computer profile (RPI 51) could use a little help, so they'll need to win at Northwestern to close out the regular season, and a win in their first Big Ten Tournament game would also be recommended.
5. Iowa (7). An at-large bid for the Hawkeyes is probably out of reach, as their RPI took a big dip this week (74). A win at Wisconsin this week would clinch a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, which looks like their only chance for an NCAA bid at the moment.
6. Minnesota (5). A win at home vs. Purdue on Sunday would have moved the Gophers back to the .500 mark overall and given them at least a fighting chance for an at-large NCAA bid. Instead, they lost, putting an end to their at-large chances. Like the Hawkeyes, they need a win to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Tourney, as they host Nebraska this week.
7. Ohio State (8). The Buckeyes are the only team outside the top four with a chance at an NCAA at-large bid because of the good work they did in the non-conference season. They have a favorable matchup at home against Indiana this week. Win that one, and they'll be in the Big Ten Tournament with a chance for another win to enhance their resume.
8. Michigan (6). The Wolverines' season is on life support. They need a win at Illinois and some help to get in the top seven and a Big Ten Tournament berth (it would be eight, but Northwestern is the host school and guaranteed a spot).
9. Purdue (9). The Boilermakers also have a chance at a Big Ten tournament spot, but their final game is at Penn State, so it will take a Herculean effort to get the job done.
10. Nebraska (10). It's not quite as tall a task for the Cornhuskers, who visit Minnesota, but it still won't be easy to gain their fifth conference victory. They also need a little help from the teams above them to gain a spot.
11. Indiana (11). The Hoosiers close out at Ohio State and will try to play the role of spoiler. A win in Columbus would take away any chance for an NCAA at-large bid for the Buckeyes.
12. Northwestern (12). The Wildcats' season will continue next week regardless of how they do this weekend vs. Michigan State. As the host of the Big Ten Tournament, they'll draw top seed Penn State in the opening round. Good luck!
To the Polls
This week's Top Drawer Tournament 64 lists five Big Ten teams in its projection of the NCAA Tournament field: Penn State (#10), Illinois (#25), Michigan State (#41), Wisconsin (#43) and Ohio State (#45).
The NSCAA Top 25 has a pair of Big Ten teams in the poll this week. Penn State is up two spots to #12, while Illinois moves up five places to #20. Wisconsin and Iowa are receiving votes, well one vote in Iowa's case.
Meanwhile, there's a new #1 in the NSCAA Great Lakes regional rankings for the first time in a long time. Penn State claims the top spot after Milwaukee lost at Illinois State over the weekend. The other Big Ten teams here are Illinois (#3), Wisconsin (#4), Michigan State (#6), Iowa (#7), and Ohio State (#8). Our neighbors from Bloomington-Normal (Illinois State) make their first appearance here at #10.
Illinois appears in the Soccer America Top 25 for the first time since the non-conference season at #22 this week. Penn State is the other Big Ten represented at #11.
What's on Tap
A 10-2 week in last week's picks was a pleasant surprise. That brings my season total to 91-31-8. This weekend gives me fewer opportunities to mess things up, as there are only six games in the conference.
Nebraska at Minnesota. Who knows what will happen when two of the more inconsistent teams in the conference get together with a Big Ten Tournament berth on the line? As usual, when in doubt, pick the home team.
Purdue at Penn State. The Nittany Lions have clinched the Big Ten title and the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament, while Purdue needs a win to have a chance to make the Big Ten Tournament. But Penn State is playing for a national seed, and I think that's enough motivation to beat the Boilermakers.
Michigan at Illinois. The Wolverines have more to play for, with a Big Ten Tournament berth on the line, and with it their last shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. But the Illini should be plenty motivated on senior night, as they look for their first win over Michigan since 2008.
Iowa at Wisconsin. As with the game in Champaign, the visitors may have a bit more to play for, but Wisconsin's NCAA prospects aren't a guarantee, which I'm sure Paula Wilkins will stress all week in Madison.
Michigan State at Northwestern. This is one of those games where it probably won't help MSU much to win it, but it would hurt them a lot to lose it. Look for Heyboer and company to get the job done in Evanston.
Indiana at Ohio State. The Buckeyes' offense has been inconsistent all season. But not as inconsistent as the Hoosier defense. I think that will be the difference in Columbus.
On the Air
Our coverage of other Illini sports this weekend won't allow us to carry Saturday's game vs. Michigan, but I hope to have some interviews this week with players and coaches to share with you. Thanks for reading.