The ball dropped to freshman forward Jack Hallahan at the top left corner of the box. After beating a defender off the dribble, he took a few steps and struck the ball with his left foot, finding the bottom corner of the net.
Up to that point, the Michigan men’s soccer team had followed a frustratingly familiar script Sunday against Penn State. Despite holding advantages in possession, shots and shots on goal, the Wolverines found themselves locked in a scoreless tie with the Nittany Lions for the first 63 minutes.
Hallahan’s goal to break the deadlock opened the gates, as sophomore forward Francis Atuahene would head in a second goal nine minutes later to effectively seal the win.
“Once you get that first goal, you find out that it’s possible (to score),” said senior defender Lars Eckenrode. “We were getting unlucky, and we weren’t really taking the chances with the kind of grit that we want to take those chances.”
Getting in position to take chances certainly hasn’t been the issue for Michigan. Over 11 games this season, the Wolverines have outshot their opponents 180-142, and 72-51 on goal. Those opportunities just haven’t been translating into goals or wins.
But following consecutive 2-0 wins against Detroit on Wednesday and against the Nittany Lions on Sunday, the Wolverines (2-6-3 overall, 1-4 Big Ten) might be starting to put those problems in their rear-view mirror.
Michigan looked threatening on offense from the beginning, moving the ball quickly and using the speed of Atuahene and Hallahan down the wings to put pressure on Penn State’s defense.
“Our game plan was to get out wide, expose their fullbacks and get balls in the box,” Hallahan said. “We knew what we had to do beforehand and we knew where Penn State couldn’t stop us.”
The formula worked to create chances, as the Wolverines outshot the Nittany Lions, 9-3, in the first half and registered five shots on goal. But despite the fact that the game remained scoreless at halftime, head coach Chaka Daley was pleased with his team’s performance.
“We just stayed the course,” Daley said. “If things are going the right way, which they were in the first half, we basically tell (the team) to stay the course and keep going and goals will come.”
The Wolverines were able to reward Daley’s faith with their second half performance, and also reinforced their coach’s optimism about the rest of the season.
“Credit to the guys for keeping their heads and staying the course,” Daley said. “Halfway through the season and we’re still grinding and fighting like that against a good team like Penn State tells us the guys are up for the rest of the way.”
The Wolverines’ confidence in themselves is clear, having played with the same style all season long. To Eckenrode, these first two wins of the season don’t show a team just beginning to jell, but a team that’s just now starting to see results.
“I think we’ve been a pretty cohesive group from the beginning,” Eckenrode said. “In terms of playing, our movement, our chemistry, it’s all been pretty good, we just haven’t been able to put those results together. I don’t know if it’s bad luck or just poor circumstances, but that’s just the way the game goes a lot of the time.”
After the slow start to the season, Michigan’s luck appears to be changing. With a solid foundation in place already, the extra bounces going their way might just allow them to make up more ground in the Big Ten race.