With 11 minutes remaining in the first half, Michigan senior forward Jack Hallahan sped down the right side of the field, lofting a pass over the head of a bystanding Cornell defender into the box to graduate student forward Nebojas Popovic.
Popovic instantly redirected the ball towards junior forward Mohammed Zakyi, who fired a point-blank shot past the arms of diving Big Red goalkeeper Brady McSwain to give the Wolverines (2-1-0) the lead, 1-0.
Michigan never looked back on Friday night, scoring two additional goals to shut out Cornell (0-1-0) 3-0, in a match highlighted by a suffocating Wolverines defensive unit and opportunistic forward play.
Prior to Zakyi’s goal, each team held the other to brief possessions in the middle of the field and struggled to advance into their opponent’s territory.
But Michigan’s defense, anchored by veteran junior defender Jackson Ragen, soon clamped down on Cornell’s forwards and disbanded their efforts, giving its offense the necessary possessions to produce goal-scoring opportunities.
“The defense kept shutting them out and getting us the ball. And that just put more pressure on their defense,” Popovic said. “Because of that, we got more space in the middle of the park.”
As the pendulum swung in their favor, the Wolverines were able to spread out the Big Red’s defense, allowing their forwards to open up the field with long passes and run their offense through Hallahan’s swift ball-handling on the right side.
“(Hallahan) opens teams up with his dribbling and his eye,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “(The forwards) are all benefitting because of the attention put on Jack. We are fortunate to have him facilitating for the others.”
Three minutes into the second half, the Wolverines capitalized on a free kick from junior midfielder Marc Ybarra. Ybarra rocketed the ball deep into Cornell’s box towards Ragen, who then launched a tight-angled shot from the back post behind McSwain to extend their lead, 2-0.
As the game progressed, Michigan only intensified its stifling defensive play, limiting the Big Red to only three shots in the second half. Senior goalkeeper Andrew Verdi tallied all four of his saves during the half in his first shutout since returning to the starting position.
“(Verdi’s) done great. After not playing for a little while, it’s definitely hard to adjust,” Ragen said. “I will bet that he will be even more comfortable now.”
Just like their defense, the Wolverines’ offense refused to let up on the gas pedal at any point throughout the rest of the game. With two minutes remaining in the contest, Popovic tapped a goal past McSwain to ice the game for Michigan.
Despite a slow start in which neither team could seem to hold onto possession, the Wolverines eventually clicked into the right gears to generate a dominating performance on both sides of the ball.
“We talk a lot about getting momentum. If we win the first ball, let’s get the second ball. And then connect the first pass,” said Daley. “If we can do those things, we think we have enough in the locker to unlock teams or keep going until they make a mistake.”