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Rutgers preps for home stretch of Big Ten schedule

With six games left in the regular season, the Rutgers women's soccer team is now officially at the back end of its schedule. Its 2018 campaign comes back home Thursday night after a long and productive road trip that saw flight delays, shutouts and walk offs.

But now, head coach Mike O’Neill takes what has been a more than eventful season back to Yurcak Field to face No. 14 Northwestern in what will be the first of a two-game homestand. The Scarlet Knights (7-1-4, 3-0-2) will face Illinois on Sunday, and then will only have one home game left in their season finale against Purdue.

Rutgers will be looking to get it done in regulation for the first time in a long time. The last time the Knights only played a 90-minute game was in a 2-1 loss to Monmouth back on Sept. 7, their only loss on the season. Since then its been all overtime.

Rutgers has played into extra minutes in its previous six games, with five of those games going into double overtime. The Knights are undefeated over that span with three wins and three draws, a record that has kept them near the top of the Big Ten standings with sole possession of second place, right behind Nebraska for first.

The Cornhuskers sit atop the standings by virtue of having played and won one more game than Rutgers, but the Knights have kept pace over the previous two weeks, not letting Nebraska gain any ground.

Even if it has taken going into overtime every game, Rutgers has been able to stay undefeated in Big Ten play to this point. 

It is the first time that the program is five games deep into conference play without a loss since joining the Big Ten, so the clutch factor that the team has played with these past few weeks has led to one of the best starts in program history.

Despite being near the top of the standings, the Knights' offense is at the bottom half of the total goals scored in conference play with only 6 goals against conference opponents this season. Against total opponents the team ranks much higher at fourth in the Big Ten with 22 total goals.

Sophomore forward Amirah Ali has been at the center of the Rutgers offense this season, as her scoring has been one of the most important components to the team’s success this season. The team is a perfect 3-0 whenever she scores, with two of those wins being decided by an Ali golden goal in overtime.

She currently leads the Big Ten in goals scored per game and is tied with Cornhusker forward Faith Carter for total goals scored this season with 8, but Carter has had one more game to tally that mark.

In addition to Ali, the Knights have another conference leader on offense in junior midfielder Nicole Whitley who currently leads the Big Ten in assists with seven, and just behind her tied for third is fellow senior backfielder Kenie Wright with five.

Defensively, Rutgers has been one of the top teams since conference play has started. It has yet to give up more than 1 goal in a game against Big Ten opponents and are fourth in goals against average in the conference.

The Wildcats come into Yurcak Field off of their highest scoring performance of the season, after a 4-1 win over Michigan on Sunday, but overall Northwestern is in the bottom half of the conference in goals per game.

The Knights' biggest threat on Thursday night will be forward and midfielder Brenna Lovera, who leads the Wildcats in goals scored with 5 and assists with three. But other than Lovera, the only other Northwestern player to score more than 1 goal this season is defender Kayla Sharples.

The Rutgers offense should be in for a bigger challenge on the other side of the ball, as the Wildcat defense, led by goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood, has put up a conference leading seven shutouts this year. 

As good as the Knights' defense has been this year, Northwestern’s has been the best in the Big Ten this season and will be a challenge for a Rutgers offense that hasn’t been able to put up more than 2 goals against a Big Ten opponent yet, this season.

Statistics would say that Thursday night is shaping up to be a heavy defensive battle, as the Knights may be in for their seventh straight overtime contest. Only time will tell as the two squads are set to square off in what is now the waning weeks of the 2018 regular season.

For updates on the Rutgers women's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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