Nebraska played the role of potential spoiler until the final whistle. Armed with just one senior and a lot of fight, the Huskers tied No. 6 Michigan State and made a run at the one-loss top seed.
But the Huskers couldn’t connect with the back of the net more than once on Thursday afternoon at Lower.com Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, against an adjusted top-tier defense. A second-half go-ahead goal lifted the Spartans and the Huskers spent the remaining 24 minutes looking for an answer in a 2-1 loss. Nebraska entered the season picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten and left the conference season a goal shy of the conference championship game.
The Huskers await their fate. They entered the semifinal game No. 52 in the latest RPI rankings with a few votes in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25. This puts them in a position to possibly receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA will reveal the tournament field on Monday around 3:30 p.m.
The Huskers didn’t shy away from Michigan State. Nebraska’s high attacking line put the sixth-ranked team in the country under pressure in the opening half hour.
Michigan State’s Camryn Evans put the Spartans ahead in the 22nd minute on a back-to-front attack against the run of play. The Spartans intercepted the ball outside their own box and moved forward. Courtney Koehler eventually found Evans with an angle in the box and the fifth-year senior put it past goalkeeper Sami Hauk. Hauk also made a vital two-foot tackle outside the 18-yard box to stop a Michigan State breakaway minutes later.
Nebraska took that shot and continued to press. Eventually, it paid off. Jordan Zade took a heavy touch before sending a cross into the box for Eleanor Dale. The junior from England headed it past goalkeeper Lauren Kozel to equalize after trailing for 14 minutes.
Facing the onslaught of Nebraska’s high press, Michigan State head coach Jeff Hosler switched to a four-person backline just before halftime. This assured his team enough to get to halftime level with the challengers.
“Pretty good from our end in terms of game management, trying to play in their end of the field” head coach John Walker told the Big Ten TV crew at halftime. “Overall press, zonal play and transitions have been pretty good but they’re such a good team if you get that wrong there’s a dangerous attack coming. But I think so far the players have done what I think we’ve asked them to do and they’re competing at a high level.”
Twenty minutes into the second half Michigan State found the winner. Ranya Senhaji laid a pass off for Kehler, who calmly slotted a shot past a sprawling Hauk to the far post.
Nebraska outshot Michigan State 13-to-9 in the game, although both teams managed six on goal. The Huskers won five corner kicks compared to Michigan State’s three. But it was the final piece of getting the ball past the consensus Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year a second time that proved unattainable.
Sophomore Florence Belzile won one of the better chances in the second half, receiving the ball in space from about 25 yards out. She teed off on the half-volley but her effort sailed just over the bar.
Sarah Weber, who led the conference in shots taken during the season, managed three against Michigan State. Her influence on the match went beyond shots, however, as she anchored Nebraska’s press and kept the Spartans from regrouping.
“We put a lot of responsibility on her to hold the ball off, win balls, flick balls, come inside and shoot, cross the ball, defend, you name it,” Walker said of Weber. “She’s a really good all-around player.”
The Huskers are now 2-2-0 in the last four games including a pair of four-goal wins over No. 24 Penn State and No. 25 Ohio State. Their run of form impressed voters enough to earn poll points and their RPI improved with those wins. Nebraska will learn on Monday if its enough to prolong the season.