Rutgers defeats league leaders in Michigan
Home-field advantage is immeasurable. Playing on a familiar field in front of cheering fans provides teams with an extra boost of energy to push through difficult stretches of games.
The Rutgers men’s soccer team doesn’t appear to believe in home-field advantage.
The Scarlet Knights (6-4-1, 2-3-0) improved to 2-0 against conference opponents on the road after handing Big Ten leader Michigan its first conference loss of the season in extra time Saturday morning in Ann Arbor.
Sophomore forward Jason Wright scored the only goal of the contest against the Wolverines (5-3-3, 2-1-2) three minutes into extra-time to bring the Knights within two points of the conference lead.
Sophomore forward Miles Hackett played a big part in the goal, charging forward on the counter-attack that led to the game-winner.
Hackett fed a great ball to an open Wright streaking into the home side’s penalty area, and the Kingston, Jamaica, native made no mistake, calmly finishing past Evan Louro to send his team into a frenzy.
"It was an exuberant feeling," Wright said of the moment he scored. "Scoring the golden goal in a tough conference game like that, it's critical. It's a critical goal that can take this team to the next high. It's definitely the most important goal for me this season. But I want to give credit to all my teammates, especially Miles, who led the ball perfectly for me to slide it home."
Wright’s goal improves Rutgers to 1-1-1 in extra-time games this season. The Knights have been on the losing end of a golden goal earlier this season against Wisconsin, which makes being on the other end that much sweeter.
“We had the heartbreaker against Wisconsin and that’s the lowest of lows to lose on a golden goal in the last second of a game,” said senior center back Drew Morgan. “To win off of a golden goal, it’s by far one of the best feelings ever. … All your worries are gone and the excitement is unbelievable."
Rutgers has performed better in games it was not expected to win than in games where it was the favorite.
Prior to Saturday, the Knights' biggest win was a 4-1 upset against then-No. 22 Indiana in Bloomington. But in a midweek matchup against a less-than-stellar Yale team, they were sluggish. While it won by a convincing scoreline of 5-2, Rutgers did not play as well as it had been all season.
Playing against a more talented team, the Knights remained disciplined and put in a solid shift.
“What tends to happen sometimes is teams play to the level of their competition ... and I think that’s what happened against Yale the other night and that’s disappointing,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “I thought today, they knew they were going to have their hands full with Michigan with the players that they have and they were focused and they were on task and did a great job really on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively because we needed to shut those guys down.”
Facing a lethal attack spearheaded by freshman forward Francis Atuahene, who was tied with Wright for the Big Ten lead in goals (8) heading into Saturday’s contest, Rutgers’ backline had a long 90 minutes ahead of them.
Much like Jason Wright did with Miles Hackett's pass in the 93rd minute, the Knights took the challenge in stride.
The Wolverines enjoyed a majority of the possession, causing Rutgers to spend a lot of the time without the ball — something it hasn’t gotten a lot of practice doing this season. Despite this, the back four from the Banks put in perhaps its best shift of the season.
“The guys were very committing to working hard and defending for 90 plus minutes,” Donigan said. “They’re a very dangerous attacking team. They have some very good players up front and our back four did a phenomenal job dealing with their potent attack. I thought it was one of the best defensive performances we’ve had all season and we needed it to come away with a win against Michigan at their place.”
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect 93 minutes. The Wolverines had their chances, outshooting the Knights, 14-13, and forcing David Greczek to make three saves.
But whenever a defender slipped up, he had a teammate behind him to clean up his mistake.
“Tyler Morris and Guzie and Mitchell Lurie and Drew Morgan really just did a great job at challenging initial balls in and not letting guys turn and run at us, and when they did get into kind of difficult situations, they stepped up and made great tackles and great plays,” Donigan said. “They supported each other. If somebody got beat, there was another one of us to be there to deal with it, to help out. It was just a good team effort all over the field.”
The importance of this win can not be stated enough. Heading into the crucial stretch of the season, it puts Rutgers back into the mix in the Big Ten.
“It puts us right in the thick of things,” Donigan said of the win. “We’ve got three (conference games) to go — two on the road, one at home. So it just really kinda puts us in the plate for everything within the conference. Every week, these results jumble everything up. So we just have to hope that we get the results from the other teams that we need and we take care of our own business.”
Along with the good it did for the Knights in the Big Ten standings, it proved to those who doubted Rutgers entering the season that it could compete with the top teams in the conference.
Given the circumstances, Donigan places this win high up on his list of best wins in program history.
“It was one of the better wins we’ve ever had, especially (since) we’ve only been in the (Big Ten) conference for two seasons,” Donigan said. “We haven’t had a lot of (conference) wins, especially on the road, so it makes it that much better, that much more satisfying for us.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.