Keys to Northwestern‘s high stakes match against Michigan State

By Adam Bakr

All games aren’t created equally, and a potentially season defining matchup is on the horizon at Martin Stadium Sunday when Northwestern hosts Michigan State. 

The two teams have the same conference record, 6-0-1, and are tied atop the Big Ten standings. Overall, the Wildcats better the Spartans by one win, sitting at 12-1-2, while the Spartans are 11-1-3. Northwestern has the third highest scoring offense in the conference with 33 goals and the second best defense, only conceding eight. Michigan State tops the ‘Cats in both categories, with 34 goals and a conference-best six goals conceded. 

Northwestern currently holds its highest ranking in program history, sitting at No. 5 in the nation. Michigan State is ranked for the first time since 2011, going from unranked to 15th this past week. 

After Sunday’s matchup, only two games will remain for both sides in the regular season. Barring a collapse, whoever wins this game will take a big step to securing the Big Ten regular season title and the first seed for the Big Ten Tournament. 

Here are two matchups that should play a big role on Sunday.

Rowan Lapi vs. Lauren DeBeau

Lapi has held down the Northwestern defense all season from her defensive mid role. She both protects the back three and drops back to cover when any of the three have to step up. She’s scored four goals and has three assists from her defensive position. If Northwestern’s able to contain the forward DeBeau, Lapi, along with Caterina Regazzoni beside her, will likely have to step up. 

DeBeau leads Michigan State in goals with eight and has added two assists. Five of the goals and both assists have come in conference play, including a 12-minute hattrick at Illinois on Sept. 18 and a volley to cap off a 2-0 win over rival Michigan on Oct. 9. While she’s an attacker, DeBeau drops back into the midfield, drifts out wide and is still as much of a play maker as she is a scorer.

Aurea Del Carmen vs. Lauren Kozal

Del Carmen has been prolific in conference play, with four of her six goals coming since the start of the Big Ten schedule.. This included the Wildcats’ lone goal in the 1-1 draw with Rutgers and the game winner against Wisconsin last week. She also drops back into the midfield often and is a large reason for Josie Aulicino and Meg Boade’s productive seasons from midfield. The midfield will still likely get some chances, but in a more even midfield matchup it’s likely they won’t get as much as in other games, meaning a majority of the scoring opportunities will fall to Del Carmen, as was the case in the game against Rutgers. In the game she had six of the team’s 14 shots, and four of the six that came on target. 

Spartans’ goalkeeper Lauren Kozal has led the Big Ten in save percentage for the last two seasons and is the reigning Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year. Michigan State leads the conference with only six goals conceded and Kozal has been a big part of that – in Michigan Stat’s most recent win over Indiana, she had a great reflex save in the last minute to seal the 1-0 victory. 

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Evanston on Sunday.