November 18, 2013

The Anatomy of an upset: Rose-Hulman downs #1 Ohio Wesleyan

By Ryan Harmanis,

Rose-Hulman celebrates their goal against Ohio Wesleyan on Sunday.
RHIT athletics photo

Upsets. One of the great aspects of sports is the potential for surprise: the amazing play, the “you just had to be there” game, and above all, the upset. Upsets draw attention because, as the saying goes, “everyone loves an underdog” (except, of course, those on the receiving end). Regardless, upsets are a given. They are even more commonplace in soccer, where the low-scoring nature of the game makes the outcome more volatile and upsets more common.

To place an upset in context, we must first characterize its nature. One end of the spectrum is the “perception” upset: the perceived gap between favorite and underdog never really existed in the first place, and thus what we thought was an upset was simply a true reflection of reality. The other end of the spectrum is pure luck: the underdog rides a perfect storm of circumstance to a victory that would likely never repeat itself.

Most upsets fall somewhere in the middle, including Rose-Hulman's (12–5–5) shocking 1–0 upset over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio Wesleyan (19-1-3). So, with the tournament’s biggest surprise as our backdrop, let’s examine the ingredients of an upset.

The History: While the teams were unfamiliar with one another, the history of the situation was a common one. Rose-Hulman hails from the HCAC, home to 2009 Elite Eight participant Transylvania.  Including Sunday’s match, HCAC teams have now dealt Ohio Wesleyan three of its last six tournament losses. Perhaps the conference slate leads to a style of play built to win these games, but in any event the template was there for an HCAC win.

The Background: Teams playing after a bye often struggle; this makes four out of the past five seasons where at least one bye recipient has lost. More specifically, Ohio Wesleyan has struggled with byes. Despite winning the 2011 title with a bye, the Bishops lost in 2009 after giving up only two regular season goals and in 2005 after posting a perfect 20–0 record. There is just something about these games that leads to upsets, and OWU has proven particularly susceptible to them.

The Buildup: An NCAA second-round game, with the favorite receiving a bye and the underdog having already won a tournament game on the road. The favorite is off the normal midweek-weekend game schedule, while the underdog has already tasted NCAA play. Here, Rose-Hulman advanced in the tournament for the first time in program history only three days earlier. The confidence stemming from such an experience cannot be overstated.

The Pressure: All of it fell on Ohio Wesleyan: an early exit in 2012, a senior-laden team with a championship pedigree, a home game with a bye. Rose-Hulman had nothing to lose, as the team’s stated goal was to simply advance in the tournament. Rather than be satisfied, the Engineers embraced the underdog role and decided to continue a magical run.

The (Flawed) Perception: If you simply look at records, Rose-Hulman hardly has the resume of a Sweet 16 team. At 11–5–5, the Engineers had barely won more than half of their games against a relatively weak schedule. Look closer, however, and you can see the framework for a dangerous team capable of beating anyone. A stingy defense with more shutouts (12) than goals against (11) would be difficult to break down. A seemingly impotent offense (only 37 goals) boasted a 15-goal scorer and would be able to take advantage of any defensive lapses. This dangerous combination would lead to a Sweet 16 berth.

The Favorite’s Weakness: Ohio Wesleyan trailed in six games and nine other times allowed teams to draw even after taking the lead. It used on a potent offense and an open style of play, often relying on the second half to put teams away after lackluster first halves. In a tight game against a team content to sit deep and defend, the Bishops couldn’t adjust.

The Weather: Days of rain muddied the field and slowed Ohio Wesleyan’s speed advantage and combination game. Facing an opening 45 minutes against the wind, Rose-Hulman knew that if it survived unscathed it would be able to take advantage of the conditions in the second half. The Engineers went even further, scoring against the wind and then using it to clear the ball time and again in the second half to put the game to bed.

The Early Goal: If the favorite scores an early goal, the underdog often struggles to come back.  Similarly, if the underdog scores but is quickly pegged back, the same result follows. However, scoring early gives the underdog belief and something to protect while relieving the pressure of needing a goal. Simultaneously, the pressure builds on the favorite as the game drags on. Here, Rose-Hulman scored a quality goal five minutes in and visibly grew in confidence as the game progressed, while OWU simply ran out of ideas.

Luck: No team goes far in the NCAA tournament without it. In just the past three seasons the champions have had the rub of the green: 2012 Messiah beat York in penalties, 2011 Ohio Wesleyan came from two down with 15 minutes to go in the Sweet 16, and 2010 Messiah benefitted from an egregious missed call that denied Lynchburg the title. In similar fashion, Rose-Hulman was lucky to see multiple shots from OWU cannon off the post on Sunday.

Stout Defending: The biggest surprise was not the final score, but the manner in which Rose-Hulman won. After withstanding Ohio Wesleyan’s first-half barrage, most assumed it would be business as usual following the break. Rose-Hulman had other ideas, as strong centerback play led the way in keeping the Bishops from registering a single shot on goal in the second half. This is even more impressive considering the Engineers failed to register a single attack of note in the last 85 minutes of the game. While Ohio Wesleyan was certainly off, the bulk of the credit rightfully goes Rose-Hulman for its defensive effort, as it looked comfortable for the entire second half.

The Bottom Line: While an upset often involves elements of luck, circumstance, and even an “off day” from the favorite, more than anything it requires a special performance. Rose-Hulman put forth such a performance on Sunday, using the best defensive effort seen at Roy Rike Field in recent memory to deservedly advance. The Engineers got their goal and seemingly said, “Our defense is good enough to win this game from here.” As it turns out, they were correct.


Ryan Harmanis


Ryan Harmanis played for Ohio Wesleyan from 2007 to 2010 where he was a three-year captain. Following graduation, Ryan continued to follow the D-III landscape before joining in 2013. He combines an analytical background with a passion for writing and the game of soccer. [see full bio]

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