The waves of offensive attacks from Marshall were as consistent as the drumbeat from the stands at Hoops Family Field on Saturday night.
For the better part of 110 minutes the cycle repeated itself, as the Thundering Herd would establish possession near midfield and try again to unlock Kentucky’s defense, which sat ready and resolute to repel those efforts.
It was this determination that made the end result — a 0-0 draw between the Wildcats and defending NCAA champion Thundering Herd — so satisfying for the visitors, who successfully adapted their formation to stifle their opponents.
No. 10 Kentucky, still undefeated this season with an overall record of 5-0-2 (W-L-D) and 0-0-2 in Conference USA play, shifted to a back five for Saturday’s match.
The allowed the fifth-ranked Thundering Herd to finish the match with the majority of total possession (63%), but the end product from that time on the ball was just one shot on target, easily saved at the end of the first overtime period by Kentucky goalkeeper Jan Hoffelner, who recorded his fifth clean sheet of the season.
It was also the first time this season that Marshall was held scoreless.
“It was a real mental effort today to make sure that you were where you were supposed to be in your position,” Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren told the Herald-Leader postmatch. “There’s some spaces that Marshall is really good in, and that’s why we kind of sat back a little more today and played with a back five to take those spaces away.”
Kentucky’s decision to change formation for this match was a thought-out process, with the idea initially coming from associate head coach Chase Wileman.
After toying with the idea last week and experimenting with it more during practice this week, Cedergren brought about five of the team’s most experienced players into his office to propose the defense-oriented tactical switch.
Senior defender Robert Screen was among those in the room, and confirmed the players had veto power over proceeding with the back five formation that Cedergren presented.
“Of course we were a little hesitant hearing a change in formation because we’ve been doing so well so far … it was a good tactical plan in the end,” Screen said. “It shows how versatile we are as a team. Part of that is really good because, again with the group of guys we have, we know we can trust each other to do the job put out in front of us.”
Screen was one of six Wildcats — along with Hoffelner, fellow defenders Lucca Rodrigues and Luis Grassow, wing back Mason Visconti and midfielder Bailey Rouse — to play all 110 minutes Saturday night, a task that required emotional composure in addition to defensive discipline.
There were 32 combined fouls and four combined yellow cards in the match, and match referee Esteban Rosano was in danger of losing control during the first overtime period as the two teams came together in a shoving match that halted the game for several minutes.
“One reason (the game) had all that bite is because they were struggling,” Screen said. “You could tell from the way they were all getting mad at each other and the way they were trying to fight us every time we got the ball.”
“I just think that there’s moments where sometimes you’ve got to put your body in there just because that’s what your team needs and everyone understands that,” Cedergren added, while complimenting Marshall head coach Chris Grassie and the Thundering Herd program. “There’s a little bit of handbags around it, but I thought everyone played within the rules and the limits today.”
Despite having significantly less possession, Kentucky forced five saves from Marshall goalkeeper Oliver Semmle, including two stops from point-blank range to deny UK’s Martin Soereide in the first half and Eythor Bjorgolfsson in overtime.
Bjorgolfsson — Kentucky’s leading scorer with three goals — didn’t appear until the 64th minute and only played 43 total minutes as he recovers from an injury.
“If we hadn’t created those chances that we created, I would have been more concerned, but I think we set ourselves up to win the game,” Cedergren said.
Kentucky’s lone draws this season have both come in conference play, as the Wildcats have played scoreless matches at both Coastal Carolina and Marshall, two of the best teams in C-USA.
The context surrounding this latest result: On the road against a top-five team, playing in a new formation meant specifically for this opponent and in front of an opposing crowd of more than 1,700 people, is something the Wildcats will be able to point back to later this season.
“I think most of it has to do with the grit that we showed,” Screen said. “I think later in the season against teams that we expect to beat, if we put in that kind of effort it should come.”
In addition to hardening their defensive resolve, the Wildcats also kept several streaks in tact with Saturday’s performance.
For the second time this season, UK has gone at least 250 consecutive minutes without conceding, having last allowed a goal on Sept. 12 against Duquesne.
The Wildcats are also undefeated through seven matches to start a season for the first time since 2018, when the team made a historic run to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.
In the same way the Wildcats adapted Saturday night they’ll adjust their alignment again for Wednesday’s non-conference match at Dayton, where Cedergren said he expects to rotate four starters.
“It’s a real strength as a team to be able to play more than one way,” Cedergren said. “This is just something that we’ve talked about for a while and we wanted to add to our repertoire and depending upon the score and whatever I think this is something that we could definitely do again.”
Kentucky at Dayton
When: 7 p.m.