As Michigan senior defender Morgan Whitaker placed considerable pressure on Northwestern attacker Erin Coykendall to force a turnover — the fourth one of the first period — the Wolverines displayed the heights that their defense can reach.
But great offense beats great defense — and unfortunately for Michigan, that was the case on Saturday.
In a game where the Wildcats assumed the role of attack for the majority of the game, strong defense can only amount to so much. Compounded with an uncharacteristically high number of penalties and an elite Northwestern offense, the Wolverines emerged unsuccessful in a 12-9 loss..
“I’m really happy with the way the defense played,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “If you give them that many opportunities… they’re gonna score goals.”
Every team loses games throughout the year. What separates good teams from great ones is the ability to identify strengths and grow from there. The tenacity of the Wolverines’ defensive unit is that bright spot.
The disparity in turnovers and ground balls exemplifies the impact of the defense — even in the face of defeat.
“They’re rockstars,” Nielsen said. “The cohesiveness that they have back there is just at an all-time high right now.”
In a season that has already exceeded expectations, the Wolverines continue to display their potential.
Throughout the first period on Saturday, Michigan’s defenders exhibited two vital things: The chemistry and trust within this group runs deep and when united, they have the capability to stop any attack.
“I think our girls came out and they played hard,” Nielsen said. “They put their head down and didn’t back down. What we told them going in was to play Michigan lacrosse, which is hard, fast, tough, gritty and physical. They did all that.”
The defensive unit places pressure on opposing attacks, making opponents work for everything and limiting the number of shot opportunities. Graduate goalkeeper Arielle Weissman is there to deal with what slips through the cracks. This combination has amounted to the third best defense in the nation. Weissman — who ranks second in the Big Ten in save percentage — demonstrated her skills on Saturday, saving 14 of the 26 Northwestern shots on goal.
“For the most part we’re playing defense for 70, 80, 90 seconds at a time and causing stop after stop, after stop, giving Arielle the shots that she likes to save,” Nielsen said. “She had a heck of a game in the cage.”
Thanks largely to the defensive end’s assertive presence, the Wolverines went into halftime trailing 5-3 — a surmountable deficit.
However, coming out of the break Michigan failed to execute, and the potential apparent in the first half evaporated. The once impenetrable defense revealed previously sealed cracks and the offensive relentlessness of the Wildcats caught up to the Wolverines; the weight proved too much.
While the Northwestern attack only evaded the defense once in the opening 15 minutes, it tallied seven goals in the final two periods of play. As the Wildcats ramped up their attack opportunities for the Wolverines on the offensive side seemed fleeting.
Although Michigan came up short on both sides of the field on Saturday, the game still illustrated optimism.
The Wolverines have enough talent to overcome any adversary. All of the pieces necessary for success are within these players’ reach — the only thing that stands in the way of being exceptional is inconsistency.
But in the end, great offense trumps great defense, and Michigan learned that the hard way Saturday.