Rutgers upsets No. 14 Northwestern at Yurcak Field
Back home and in the national spotlight, sophomore forward Amirah Ali once again came up big in the biggest of moments. For the seventh straight game, the Rutgers women's soccer team would have to dig into extra time, but this time, it had to dig out another win in a late season thriller against a nationally ranked team.
No. 14 Northwestern came into Piscataway fielding the top defense in the Big Ten, and in desperate need for a conference win. Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights (8-1-4, 4-0-2) came in three points shy of a share of first place with Nebraska, who does not play until Friday afternoon, so for the time being Rutgers is tied for first, but own the tiebreaker by virtue of overall record.
“The whole mentality is to focus on ourselves and focus on controlling our own destiny, so obviously, we want to be No. 1 in the Big Ten. But, we have to do the work to get there and we don’t want to have to rely on other teams or their results to get us there,” said junior midfielder and captain Taylor Aylmer.
It would be another defensive struggle to get into first place for the Knights as two of the top defenses in the Big Ten played a scoreless 90-minute regulation period.
Freshman goalkeeper Meagan McClelland played a key role in the shutout, as she tied a career high for saves with five, only four days after setting her original career mark against Minnesota.
It was also McClelland and the defense’s fifth shutout of the year, and the second against a Big Ten opponent, with their previous one coming on Friday night against Wisconsin.
“We knew of her ability, but it's not easy to go from high school, to club, to college, you have to make that transition and the way that you do that is by playing games," said head coach Mike O'Neill. "Early on, she was figuring things out and trying to learn how to play with a new back four that she’s never played with before, and she’s playing some of her best soccer right now.”
It did not come easy for McClelland though. In the second half and in the early parts of overtime, the Wildcats were the primary aggressors on the field. Northwestern made a volley of 13 shots in the second half and two in overtime, with four on goal.
McClelland, with the help of her backfielders, made one defensive play after another, denying the Wildcat offense and preserving the shutout. On McClelland’s fifth and final save of the night, the 5-foot-9-inch freshman had to extend every inch of her wingspan to deny a shot from just getting over and into the top of the net.
“It was the most pressure, but I think that the good thing for us to do was to just stay calm and stay tight, we’re a great defensive team. The team sets up a lot, they stayed nice and compact and we just had to go through it together and we got out of it,” McClelland said.
Northwestern finished the game with 20 total shots, but when it was all over, the only shot that mattered came off the left foot of the Big Ten’s leading goal scorer and the playmaker that Rutgers has turned to in overtime since last season’s upset over Wisconsin.
Ali scored her 9th goal of the season and her 3rd golden goal in as many weeks to deliver the Knights their first ranked win and a spot at the top of the standings. Ali’s game winner in this one came in the seventh minute of overtime in a nationally televised game.
Rutgers will have a short turnaround, as it hosts Illinois on Sunday for the second-to-last home game of the season. After that the Knights are back on the road for matchups against Ohio State and Penn State, who are also near the top of the standings in a heated Big Ten race.
“I just feel ecstatic. I know it doesn’t have to be me, but if I have to step up and be that player then I will. I just want to push that for my team because I’m working for them and I know they’re working for me,” Ali said. “It’s definitely surreal and I’m just happy to be a part of it. We’re doing our thing, getting the wins we need, getting the points we need and when it comes down to these hard games we definitely persevere.”
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