Mike Wolf, BTN volleyball announcer, October 16, 2012

With the conclusion of the first half of the Big Ten volleyball season upon us, separation amongst the contenders is clear. The two teams that were anticipated to be above the rest have shown it with No. 1 Penn State and No. 4 Nebraska holding the top two spots in the standings through eight matches.

A lot of volleyball remains to be played but with the Nittany Lions and the Huskers both defeating the two next closest teams in the standings (Minnesota and Purdue) in convincing fashion, but for the moment the only Big Ten programs to win a national title are step ahead of the field.

Michigan finds a lineup

For the past few weeks Mark Rosen and his staff have been searching for a lineup that would keep them competitive in the Big Ten. Rosen has stated that his team is not going to go toe to toe with the star outside hitters of the conference and the Wolverines need to be balanced and run a quick offense to challenge in the nation?s deepest league.

Last Wednesday night the Wolverines implemented a three middle lineup bringing in freshman Krystalyn Goode to rotate with Claire McElheny and Jennifer Cross against Illinois. Each player would spend time in the middle but also play a rotation or two on the right side where they would hope to have success against an inexperienced group of left side hitters.

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A lineup that was in flux since the start of the Big Ten season appears to have finally solidified after the move by Rosen. Michigan went 2-0 defeating Illinois and Northwestern in sweeps at home, the first back-to-back straight set wins in conference play since 2008 for the Wolverines.

The switch paid off in particular for junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross who had an award-winning weekend in the Maize and Blue. Cross was named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday after hitting a combined .340 in the two matches with 3.7 kills per set and 1.7 blocks per set, having particular success on the right side. A member of the Canadian national team this past summer, Cross took advantage of the youth for the Illini on the left side, racking up 14 kills including seven in the final set. With the Illini surging in set three behind the play of Jocelynn Birks, who finished with 20 kills, Cross was contributed on five of six Michigan points including two blocks and three kills to turn a 19-17 deficit into a 23-21 lead before eventually closing out the set.

Michigan?s other two middles would also make significant contributions as McElheny tallied 18 kills in two matches while true freshman Goode had five blocks against both the Illini and the Wildcats. The decision to use three middles combined with moving Lexi Erwin from the L1 to the L2 position made Michigan look like a completely different team than the one that had lost three straight entering the week. It also did not hurt Michigan to be playing back home at Cliff Keen Arena where they will hope to continue their turnaround against Michigan State on Wednesday night.

Illini make a change

Following the Illini?s fourth consecutive loss, the longest in head coach Kevin Hambly?s tenure, something needed to be done to disrupt the trend facing last year?s national runner-up. That decision came in the form of starting true freshman setter Alexis Viliunas in place of fifth year senior Annie Luhrsen for Illinois? trip to East Lansing.

The 2011 Gatorade High School Player of the Year in the state of Illinois and 34th ranked recruit in the nation did not disappoint in her collegiate debut as she would record a double-double while setting the Illini to their first 0-2 comeback since September of 2011.

Viliunas had 49 assists with 14 digs and three kills while leading the Illini to a .295 hitting percentage in a match that could have easily sunk Illinois after they dropped the first two sets.

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?She?s got a good spirit about her,? said Hambly. ?For her first match, she seemed calm; she was just out there having a good time. That?s her mentality. Maybe it?s the right thing for this team moving forward.? Read more here.

Viliunas? performance in just one match was enough to earn her Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in the eyes of the conference. If the La Grange, Illinois native remains in the starting lineup she will join Birks and Ali Stark as the third different first year player on the floor for the Illini.

Here are the matches airing live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:

#17 Purdue at Indiana
Tues., Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET

The Hoosiers may be the conference?s lone winless team at 0-8 in Big Ten play but that does not mean that this rare Tuesday night match will be taken lightly by the Boilermakers. Head coach Dave Shondell said every match in his ten seasons at Purdue has been competitive with Indiana and expects nothing less going into University Gym.

The Hoosiers have had their struggles but head coach Sherry Dunbar can see how close they are to ending the streak after pushing Nebraska to five at home and challenging Penn State on the road last Saturday.

Purdue has had struggles of their own, dropping three of their last four but made strides defensively against Ohio State Saturday night, out-blocking the Buckeyes 16.5 to 9. If the Boilers can put up another consistent blocking effort they will come away with a win on the road.

#1 Penn State at #20 Ohio State
Wed., Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. ET

The Nittany Lions may be the nation?s top ranked team but that does not mean that head coach Russ Rose is content with the play of his squad. On numerous occasions Rose has said that despite earning victories, his team has not played as hard as some of their opponents.

Following a three set win over Northwestern just over a week ago, Rose called a meeting to inform his team that the Wildcats had played harder in a loss than they did in a win.  ?If you?re not ready to play hard in the Big Ten, you?re going to get beat,? said Rose. Penn State has avoided that fate so far but the 12-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has made it clear if they do not improve in that area it could be an issue.

The Buckeyes have called for a "Scarlet Out" of the Nittany Lions at St. John Arena on Wednesday night and they will need the home court advantage to slow the Big Ten?s top team. Ohio State has struggled defensively at times this year and will need to put up a better block than they did against Purdue to pull off their second win in program history over a No. 1 team.

Indiana at Wisconsin
Fri., Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. ET

It?s a shortened week for every Big Ten team with each program playing their travel partner in a midweek match. For Indiana they will have the luxury of having a few days off after playing on Tuesday night while the Badgers will come back from Minneapolis Wednesday and get ready for Friday at the Field House.

Wisconsin has been one of the better defensive teams in the conference this season and Indiana will need to find a balanced offensive attack to earn a road victory.  The battle in the middle should be interesting to watch as the Hoosiers rely on their middles to attack more than most Big Ten teams while the Badgers have an exceptional player at the net in Alexis Mitchell. 

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.