Michigan was knocked from atop the Big Ten standings Sunday afternoon when No. 2 Indiana (10-2 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) came to town.
The 2017 national runner-up defeated the fourteenth-ranked Wolverines (8-2-1, 3-1-1), 1-0, behind a clinical offensive display and a resolute and organized defensive performance. Though the game was evenly contested, ultimately, the Hoosiers were just better when they had to be.
“That was a pretty even, 50-50 game,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “They’re a pretty good team. There’s a reason there’s a number one on their jersey, but we’re a good team, too. That’s my takeaway. There’s no doubt we were challenged though.”
For the Wolverines, a noticeable bright spot was their defense. Indiana’s goal was scored off a broken Michigan attack where the full-backs were upfield, leaving the remaining defenders exposed at the back. The Hoosiers effectively worked their man advantage, and Rece Buckmaster placed it in the only spot he could have, beating sophomore goalkeeper Henry Mashburn to the far-post.
In the first half, the Wolverine defense thwarted countless Indiana attacks and dealt aptly with a barrage of crosses from Hoosier wingers.
The centerback pairing of senior Daniel Mukuna and sophomore Jackson Ragen seemingly didn’t put a foot wrong, making critical tackles within their box. The success and reliability of this partnership has been a developing trend for Michigan throughout this season and is one of the reasons the team held the top position in the Big Ten prior to Sunday’s game.
“They’re great players,” said junior attacker Jack Hallahan. “When someone scores a goal on them, they’re absolutely gutted and that shows a lot about their character. Those guys work really hard.”
Emphasis on “when someone scores on them.” The Wolverines have allowed just seven goals in 11 games this season, and contributed to five clean sheets. Ragen and Mukuna started at the back in all of these contests.
The two dependable and physically imposing central defenders are flanked normally by seniors Peter Brown and Marcello Borges, though versatile sophomore Austin Swiech has also seen significant time at full-back. This continuity at the back has had a favorable effect on the team as a whole.
“I think it’s really nice,” Hallahan said. “Especially as an attacker knowing we have such a solid defense behind us. It gives us the freedom up front to be creative.”
Despite the success, Michigan’s stellar defensive performances will have to continue if it hopes to rebound from the loss against Indiana. The Wolverine attack was ineffective against a superior opponent like the Hoosiers, especially when they packed it in late in the game.
Michigan’s remaining schedule doesn’t get any easier with No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 13 Michigan State still to come. The Wolverines will rely heavily on their defense, like they did against Indiana, to keep them in these games.
“We got this opportunity and we played a team of that caliber now,” Daley said. “Going down the stretch, we know what we are, and what we can continue to do and build upon. Learned a lot today, for sure.”