CHAMPAIGN – The bus ride back from Normal was as quiet as a funeral last Friday. And that's rare.
The Illinois women's soccer team had just suffered its most disappointing loss of the season, 2-0 at Illinois State, and their mood was horrible.
So after Saturday's practice, the Illini players called a team meeting. No coaches. Nothing held back.
"It was pretty open," junior Holly Schurr said of the half-hour meeting. "The majority of people spoke. We got a lot out of it."
The next day, Illinois knocked off previously unbeaten Michigan State. And the "heart-to-heart," as junior Lindsay Johnson called it, was a big reason.
"We discussed some things and found out ways to get through some stuff and start working together," Johnson said. "Our main thing was communication. Just try and work on communication and lifting each other up if you make a bad play."
Halfway through the season, coach Tricia Taliaferro's 6-3 team is searching for consistency as it begins a run of seven straight Big Ten games – four at home.
With instate rival Northwestern and defending conference tournament champ Michigan – which is 4-0 against Illinois – in town, Taliaferro said this weekend could be a measuring stick for her program.
"Going out hard one game against Michigan State isn't good enough anymore," Taliaferro said. "Now it's got to be a consistent level of play. The way the Big Ten is evening out right now, everybody has a win.
"It's tough. Somebody's got to emerge as one of the leaders in the conference. This is a good weekend for us, especially being at home."
The Illini are 4-0 at home this season and they're hoping to break the single-game attendance record of 878 despite playing on a football Friday night.
Billed as "2,000 for 2000," Illinois has been promoting the Northwestern game as a pack the place night.
"The more the better," said Johnson, whose scored the deciding goal Sunday. "When the fans really get in the game, that helps us out. When we're tired on the field, we hear them and they're getting on it and they're getting rowdy. It's an adrenaline rush."
It doesn't take much to get the Illini fired up for the Wildcats. Most of the players come from the Chicago area and played with or against each other in high school and with clubs.
Schurr said "it's always personal" against Northwestern, but the Wildcats are still near the bottom of the standings. If the Illini want to crack the top 25, they have to win as favorites.
"These are two teams we need to beat," Schurr said. "If we can do this, we have the potential to go a long way. Coming off a bad game and playing a good game, we'll see if we can be consistent and finish off this weekend."
Taliaferro is looking for the "fantastic energy" her Illini played with against ths Spartans. In what appears to be a balanced conference – not counting Penn State – Illinois is still in the hunt.
"People are winning who weren't expect to win," Johnson said. "Losses are coming out of nowhere. We're at the point of our season where we need to turn it up."
Penn State could still be the class of the conference once again, but there have been some surprises midway through the Big Ten soccer season. Here's a look at the conference by the numbers.
Conference-best goals against average for Purdue keeper Elizabeth Boldt. Backup was forced into starting lineup and compiled 7-2 record after starter Jocelyn Cavalier injured a knee and was lost for the season in August.
Michigan State's goals against average. How do you go from 6-12-3 to 7-1-1 in one year? Try allowing seven goals in nine games and pitching four shutouts against a schedule full of Mid-American and Mid-Continent conference teams.
Consecutive shutouts for Michigan freshman goalie Suzie Grech. The Big Ten Player of the Week two weeks ago hasn't allowed a goal since Sept. 3.
Points for Northwestern's Katie Hertz, who leads the Wildcats with three goals and has their lone score in three conference games. Northwestern has just nine goals in eight games and has been shut out four times.
Conference-leading assist total for Penn State freshman Stephanie Smith. Could be Lions' second straight Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Conference-leading goals total for Penn State sophomore Christie Welsh, last year's freshman of the year. The All-American also has five assists and leads the Big Ten in scoring.
The Big Ten's record in nonconference games. Penn State is ranked No. 6 in the nation and has a close loss to No. 4 North Carolina and a win over No. 9 Texas A&M. Michigan and Purdue have wins over No. 24 Missouri, and Wisconsin was getting votes in the poll.
Saves by Iowa keeper Liz Hendel. The Hawkeyes have given up 87 shots on goal, the most in the Big Ten.
Shots fired by Illinois, the most in the conference.