After three shots in the first nine minutes, the Michigan women’s soccer team found itself with yet another opportunity before the 10 minute mark — a right-footed corner off the boot of senior midfielder Raleigh Loughman.
Loughman took a breath, charged and launched it towards the net. As the ball sailed in the air, fifth year midfielder Nicki Hernandez leaped up and headed it with force, bending it just past the out-stretched arms of goalkeeper Katherine Asman.
The goal started an offensive tidal wave for the No. 17 Wolverines (12-3-3 overall, 6-2-2 Big Ten), that paved the way to defeat Penn State (11-6-0, 5-5-0) 3-1 on Sunday, punching their ticket to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
In contrast to its previous outing against the Nittany Lions, which saw an aggressive 3-5-2 formation, Michigan utilized a more defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 formation to start the match.
The wall of midfielders proved to be deadly effective for the Wolverines, as they controlled possession in Penn State’s side of the field for most of the first half. As a result, they heavily outshot the Nittany Lions, 12-4.
“We didn’t know what they’d change up from the last match,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “We went with what we do best, and it worked to perfection today.”
The day’s scoring began in the ninth minute on Hernandez’s header. Loughman then added a goal of her own to the ledger with a blistered shot from just outside the box in the 20th minute.
Sunday was the third straight game Loughman has recorded a goal.
“We have so many attacking personalities on our team, it’s hard for teams to figure out which one of us will be in position at any time,” Loughman said. “I’ve just been lucky enough to be in position more often than not.”
The Nittany Lions were able to get two shots on goal late in the first half, but both were easily saved by fifth year goalkeeper Hillary Beall.
The second half was shaping up to be a quiet one, as neither team capitalized on their scoring opportunities. Michigan in particular struggled to find the back of the net, despite firing off three shots in two and a half minutes in the middle of the house.
The atmosphere of the game changed with an 85th minute goal by Penn State forward Ally Schlegel to put Penn State within one. With the Nittany Lions averaging two goals a game, the momentum appeared to be turning.
The Wolverines changed that by ramping up their aggression, keeping the ball in Penn State’s side of the field for nearly all of the final five minutes. In the final 30 seconds of play, the match was finally capped off with a goal by sophomore midfielder Kacey Lawrence, who snuck the ball through Asman’s legs into the net.
“When Penn State scored, we knew we had to disrupt their flow,” fifth year defender Alia Martin said. “Our goal became getting it to the corners or getting an open look and taking it.”
After struggles earlier in the season with scoring, the Wolverines appear to have found a groove in the goals column, scoring 12 in their past six games.
“At this time of the year, it’s about the journey and the process,” Klein said. “For us, the process is peaking exactly when we wanted it be, right now.”
Daily sports writer David Woelkers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dawjr98