The final week of the Big Ten season is upon us, and Penn State has once again claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title. The rest of the conference’s teams, they have secured their plans for the postseason, with the exception of Northwestern.
The Wildcats have earned a trip the tournament, in my opinion, but finishing on a four-match losing streak would make the team a less attractive pick for the selection committee, especially with eight Big Ten teams already in. Northwestern needs to take one of these last two against Illinois and Wisconsin to solidify its bid, otherwise this group could be sitting home due to the discretion of those making the bracket.
No. 2 Penn State at No. 10 Nebraska – Saturday 8:30 ET on BTN/BTN2Go
The long awaited matchup of Penn State and Nebraska may lose a little luster if the Nittany Lions clinch the outright Big Ten title on Wednesday night in Columbus. But that should not diminish the magnitude of this year’s only meeting between these two iconic programs.
In the first two years since Nebraska joined the conference, the teams have split each season, with both winning on their home floors, and each match in Lincoln going to five sets. The Huskers get to host this year’s only meeting and it should make for a scene unmatched in all of collegiate volleyball when 8,000 plus fans show up at the Devaney Center. This will be the first match in the series played at volleyball-centric Devaney, and it should be a preview of what is certain to be a plethora of epic matches to be played between the two programs in the building.
Normally, at this point in the year, there is an earlier matchup that can be used to gauge what we can expect from these two teams, but without that to work from, we’ll take a look at how each team fared against the rest of the conference.
Nebraska’s three conference losses have come to Michigan State and Purdue twice, while Penn State has dropped just one match, the Big Ten opener against the Spartans in University Park. Both squads have played four conference matches that have gone five sets, with the Huskers winning all four and the Nittany Lions dropping just one. Penn State has won 17 matches in a row and claimed at least a share of its 16th Big Ten title after beating Northwestern and Illinois last weekend. Nebraska was seemingly on the verge of setting up a match to decide the conference crown but after faltering against Purdue on the road last Friday, the Huskers have to hope for an upset by Ohio State to have a chance to claim a share.
Against the top half of the Big Ten, the results have been somewhat similar for the two power programs. Both teams swept and won a five-setter over Minnesota, fell to Michigan State once and earned the season sweep of Illinois and Wisconsin. The two-match separation between the teams in the standings has come from the meetings with Purdue.
Nebraska was swept by a Big Ten opponent in a season series for the first time since joining the conference, falling at home in four sets back in October, while losing in straight sets last Friday in the Boiler Box. Penn State won a five-set match on the road and then swept the Boilermakers at home when they were without difference maker Carly Cramer. As with any five-set match, it very easily could have gone to either team, and the match in Rec Hall would have been significantly different had Cramer been able to play. The similarities in results tell part of the story but a veteran Penn State team holds the 17-1 record and first place in the conference.
Statistically, the numbers also indicate that we should be in for an evenly matched contest. In conference matches only this season, Penn State and Nebraska rank first and second in four of the seven major categories: hitting percentage, assists, kills and blocks. The Nittany Lions feature four players averaging two kills per set for the year, while the Huskers have three and each team has one player that has recorded more than 100 blocks. It’s easy to get caught up in the statistical similarities, but one area where these teams drastically differ is in experience and playing time together.
Nebraska is essentially an entirely different team than they were a season ago, and while this young group has excelled and developed this season, when compared to a group of Nittany Lions that have been playing together for practically four years, they are at a disadvantage. Deja McClendon, Ariel Scott and Katie Slay have made significant contributions in all four of their seasons for Penn State, while Kelsey Robinson and Mary Pollmiller are the only Husker starters that have had playing time at the Division I level other than this year.
It will likely come down to the efforts of the seniors on both sides of the net as the deciding factor in Saturday night’s match. In four previous meetings with Nebraska, the Penn State senior trio has averaged some impressive numbers. McClendon has had a double-double in three of the four matches and averaged 17.5 kills & 13 digs per match in the series since the start of 2011. Scott has averaged 4.27 kills per set and hit .337 during that span and Slay averages 1.27 blocks per set against the Huskers. Granted those numbers were against different Nebraska teams and each season and match has to be judged on its own, these matchups have always been on the biggest stage, and this group of seniors has come through for Penn State when the spotlight has been on them.
The Huskers feature just one senior in their starting lineup, but Kelsey Robinson is a player who can change the course of an entire match on her own. Robinson is on pace to accomplish the unlikely task of winning both SEC and Big Ten Player of the Year in her career as she leads the conference in kills and points per set this season. Robinson must produce against the nation’s second-best blocking team and without a big night from the Husker star, Nebraska will have a difficult time pulling off the upset.
Not to underestimate the likely contributions of underclassmen, such as Kadie & Amber Rolfzen or Megan Courtney, but the production of or lack of production of the seniors on either side also could be a determining factor in Lincoln. That production partially comes down to the play of the junior setters and between Pollmiller and Micha Hancock. Both players have earned the Big Ten Setter of the Week on four separate occasions this season and the head-to-head meeting this weekend could be a factor when determining the Big Ten Setter of the Year. Hancock, as she has done throughout her career, also can alter the match from the service line with her Big Ten best 65 aces.
Penn State and Nebraska has been one of the nation’s best volleyball rivalries in recent history and 2013’s lone meeting will once again live up to the billing of these two decorated programs.
|About Mike Wolf||Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.|