Mike Wolf, BTN volleyball announcer, October 15, 2013

A week ago, the Big Ten witnessed an unprecedented five out of six matches reach five sets in one night. The plethora of extended matches indicated the strength of the conference but still seemed rare enough to not be duplicated in the short term.

Flash-forward to last Friday, and the count had reached nine of the last 11 matches, and seemed likely to be pushed to 10 of 12. Purdue?s fourth-set comeback against Illinois halted another night where all but one match went the distance, but it reiterated the evaporation of a talent gap in the league.

Out of 36 total Big Ten matches played in three weeks of conference action, 11 have been decided in five sets. Seemingly, the only matches in the past two weeks that have not gone five have been ones involving the Michigan State Spartans.

Take a look at the latest Big Ten standings:

Big Ten Overall
Team Record Pct. Record Pct.
Michigan State 6-0 1.000 17-1 .944
Penn State 5-1 .833 14-2 .875
Nebraska 5-1 .833 12-3 .800
Minnesota 4-2 .667 16-3 .842
Wisconsin 4-2 .667 15-3 .833
Northwestern 3-3 .500 11-7 .611
Illinois 3-3 .500 7-9 .438
Ohio State 2-4 .333 14-4 .778
Michigan 2-4 .333 12-5 .706
Purdue 2-4 .333 11-6 .647
Iowa 0-6 .000 9-9 .500
Indiana 0-6 .000 8-9 .471

Through matches of Saturday, October 12th.

Spartans all alone

With the exception of the Big Ten opener against Penn State, Michigan State has played each conference match below the maximum. Once again, the Spartans came out of the weekend with a perfect 2-0 record and asserted themselves in the battle of unbeatens, defeating Nebraska in four sets. The third-set loss to the Huskers ended a streak of 15 consecutive sets won by the Spartans, who had swept the four prior matches.

Michigan State limited its errors in sets one and four and rallied following the loss in the third to beat the Huskers 3-1 for their second straight win over Nebraska. Lauren Wicinski would finish with 20 kills to offset the 20-kill effort of Nebraska?s Kelsey Robinson, and Alexis Mathews would chip in five blocks, including two in crucial close-out moments of set one and two.

With two of the biggest hurdles of the Big Ten season already passed, Michigan State has solidified itself as the league?s top contender. MSU is off to its best start since 1995, a year the Spartans reached the Final Four, and have opened Big Ten play 6-0 for just the third time in program history. Both of those seasons represent the last time Michigan State finished atop the Big Ten standings, a feat that Cathy George?s squad would love to repeat.

Not even at the midpoint of conference play, it may be somewhat premature to place a crown on the head of the Spartans. The schedule does not let up as the season progresses, and even teams that go on to win national championships falter at some point in Big Ten play.

The minefield begins this week with a road trip to the Sports Pavilion to face a Gopher team that has the weapons and confidence to match up with Sparty, as well as a Sunday match in Madison against a resurgent Wisconsin program. Down the road, a visit from Penn State and a trip to Nebraska will present more challenges. A campaign that has opened with Michigan State playing eight of its first 12 Big Ten matches in Jenison Field House will end with six of eight in some of the most difficult road atmospheres in the conference.

The Spartans have been the team of the first half in the Big Ten and show no signs of slowing as they go after their first conference title in nearly two decades.

Northwestern Road Success

Five-set matches breed uncertainty. The sets are shorter, scoring runs can quickly take teams out of competition and players are feeling the strain of nearly three hours of volleyball. A common refrain from coaches is that the teams that are mentally tough typically come away with five-set wins, and this past weekend there was no team tougher than Northwestern.

The Wildcats went into Bloomington and took a five-setter from the Hoosiers on Friday, and then did the same to No. 20 Purdue in front of its boisterous fans in the Boiler Box on Saturday night. The victories marked the first time the Wildcats have swept a weekend road trip in the Big Ten since October of 2009.

The success can partially be attributed to a more balanced Northwestern attack this season, one of the goals for head coach Keylor Chan coming into the year. In both matches, the Wildcats would have multiple attackers produce points rather than senior All-American Stephanie Holthus carrying the scoring weight. Against Indiana on Friday, five different players recorded at least eight kills; four players did so Saturday at Purdue, including Holthus and Katie Dutchman crossing the 20-kill mark.

Prior to the season, Chan made the decision to move Dutchman to the right side from the middle with the hopes of not only balancing out the attack but also getting the talented junior more swings and quality passes than she could get out of the middle. The results through 12 matches had been good, but against Purdue, Dutchman provided a career-high 23 kills and proved why Chan made the decision to have the team?s top blocker from the past two seasons move to the right side.

"Winning on the road is what typically separates the top and the middle from the bottom," Chan said, referring to the Big Ten standings.

With two wins in the state of Indiana, Northwestern made it known that it will not be among the league?s bottom teams this season. And in the Big Ten, middle-of-the-pack teams have been known to upend the postseason in December.

Live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:

No. 17 Ohio State at Northwestern  – 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

While Northwestern is coming off one of its best weekends in years, Ohio State has been on a downward slide since the second match of conference play. The Buckeyes have lost four of their last five since starting the season 13-0 and have hit under .200 as a team in each of their past four contests.

The Wildcats found a way to not rely as heavily on Stephanie Holthus last weekend and the Buckeyes will need to give Kaitlyn Leary the same balance to end the skid in Evanston.

No. 4 Penn State at Illinois - 8:00 p.m. ET Friday

If there is one team that has had the formula for beating Penn State in recent seasons, its been the Illini. Since Kevin Hambly took over the program in 2009, Illinois has defeated the Nittany Lions three times, including a season sweep in 2011. To put that in perspective, Penn State has only lost 10 Big Ten matches since 2009 and three of them have come at the hands of the Illini.

Last year in Huff Hall saw one of the most improbable comebacks in recent Big Ten memory, as down 14-10 in the fifth set, Penn State would rally to win 18-16. These teams have played several memorable five-setters in the past few years and given the trend in the conference this season, it could be another late night in Huff Hall.

Michigan State at Wisconsin - 2:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Despite falling in straight sets to Penn State, Wisconsin might be the Big Ten?s most surprising team this season. A loss in five at Nebraska kept the Badgers from a 5-0 start to Big Ten play, but the passing combination of transfer Taylor Morey and senior Annemarie Hickey should keep Kelly Sheffield?s team in most matches.

The Spartans are back on the road after taking care of their four-match home stand, and matches against Minnesota and Wisconsin will be another challenge for a team that has already passed numerous tests.

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.