Michigan State began the week having won 12 straight after an opening season loss to Tennessee. They were receiving votes to the equivalent of being ranked 26th in the AVCA polls. Then they went into Iowa City and got schooled by the Hawkeyes in straight sets 19-25, 14-25, and 24-26. They were a senior laden team last year and made it to the NCAA regional final before succumbing to The Cult that is Penn State. This year they have a ton of freshman and sophomores seeing playing time and have a steep learning curve entering B1G play. However, I was surprised how easily Iowa disposed of them on Thursday.
I didn’t see the first set on ESPNU, but listened to J. Baylor & L. Cook on the radio. Nebraska started out fairly strong and was able to establish a solid 5 point lead before a couple of errors and a block closed the score to 15-13 and earned a timeout from Coach Cook. After the timeout, Nebraska gradually asserted itself and methodically increased the lead which resulted in a 7 point 1st set victory.
I was able to get in front of a TV at the start of the 2nd set and what I witnessed was disciplined, high level volleyball executed by the home team. It ended up being a thrashing on the scoreboard similar to the 3rd set against Missouri State. However, it had a different feel to it. In the beatdown against the Bears, Schwarzenbach dunked on them a few times (actually several times) and then Mo State just gave up. In this beatdown, I never felt the Spartans quit, the Nebraska machine just efficiently crushed anything MSU offered up. While the Green & White never gave up, it was obvious they were shell shocked. It was the best set of volleyball the Huskers have played this year.
The intermission has been good for Big Red, as has typically the 3rd set. However, it seemed like Sparty took some ‘puppy uppers’ during the rest period while the Huskers were saddled with ‘doggy downers.’ It just seemed that MSU was a half-step quicker and Nebraska a half-step slower. And while Nebraska wasn’t as sharp, it wasn’t that they somehow lost the ability to pass, something that has plagued them in 2nd sets against Santa Clara, Creighton, and to a lesser extent Michigan. Michigan State was simply playing better than Big Red. That resulted in an evenly played set eventually won by Sparty. Sweet disappeared as an offensive option in the 3rd and the block was not nearly as effective as the first two sets. Give the Green & White credit for not caving and instead coming out in the 3rd set with some fire. The 2nd set happened too easily for Big Red and they relaxed. A learning experience for the younger players that it is necessary to keep the foot on the accelerator in B1G play, as teams are good enough to flip the script, and flip it fairly quickly.
Fortunately, the Big Red put the 3rd set behind them, started strong, and controlled the 4th set throughout. While Hames still concentrated on dealing to Foecke and Sun, the Middles got more involved in the offense. The block became a disruptive force again and the defense continued to defy gravity. A key point in the 4th set was a green card review on a Haggerty attack over a Stivrins block, which ended up long and initially called out. From the angles provided on TV, it didn’t appear that Stivrins touched it, and using the criteria of “indisputable evidence to overturn,” it appeared that the original call would be easily sustained. Except it wasn’t. Not sure what camera view or angle the official was looking at, but it certainly wasn’t provided to the ESPNU crew or up on the Devaney Big Screen. The call was reversed, but that seemed to spark the crowd and the team. From that point on Big Red outgunned Sparty to a tune of 17 to 9 and won the 4th set convincingly.
Hames continues to distribute evenly enough to the Four Horseman of the Volleyball Apocalypse (Sun 36 attacks 15 kills, Foecke 24 attacks 12 kills, Sweet 19 attacks 7 kills, and Middles 19 attacks 9 kills) to keep defenses disordered. My only quibble is that she went away from Sweet after the 2nd set, but that may have been due to Sweet struggling with attack errors. Blocking remains solid with another match with double digit blocks. The passing is superior when compared to earlier in the year. In some of the early matches, Hames was running all over the court just to salvage any semblance of an offense. Now, the majority of the passes are dropping ‘on her head’ which allows the diversity in offensive attacks. And though it has been awhile, the number of service aces matched the number of service errors, which is an improvement.
What IS impressive is the defense displayed by this team. The opponents are having difficulty finding the floor on the Husker side. Big Red leads the nation in opponents hitting percentage. And another shout out to one ubiquitous Kenzie Maloney. Her anticipation of where the ball is going is nothing short of incredible. Even though the Libero position is super competitive, if she continues this level of play, she should get All-American consideration. She certainly was the MVP today.
In other B1G play, the upset of the day was The Cult of Penn State losing to the Buckeyes in 4 sets in Columbus. While it is enjoyable to see the Nittany Lions 0-2 in conference play, just remember that the Huskers have a less than stellar history against Ohio State at Columbus. In other action, Michigan came back from the defeat in Lincoln to beat the Hawkeyes in four.
Nationally, BYU crushed their inferior opponents in their inferior league. Stanford held serve even though Arizona pushed them to a fourth set. Nebraska will likely stay at 3 in the polls. The Shorthorns had one match in conference and were pushed to 5 sets by the Powercats from Manhatten. With Penn State losing twice, 4 through 9 (and possibly 10) will see some shuffling. It will be interesting to see if UT@SUCKS drops any from no. 5.
The gaggle of PAC-12 teams from 11-25 had a boatload of 5 set matches. Oregon beat little sister in 4, then beat Washington State in 5. Washington beat the Cougars in 5, then Oregon State in 5. USC swept UCLA, then beat Colorado in 5. The Buffalos beat Utah in 5, before losing to USC (in 5). In fact on Sunday, of the 5 matches played, only the Stanford / Arizona encounter went less than 5 sets. Try taking a nap in that conference.
The inexplicable Toreros of San Diego, somehow ranked at 24, went 1-1 WITHOUT playing BYU in the less than formidable West Coast Conference, leaving their record at 4-7. Hopefully enough coaches will wake up when they submit their ballot to remove this poor excuse from the rankings. Alabama, ranked at 25, lost to Missouri in 4, so they also will likely drop out.
Next for the Huskers is Northwestern and Illinois; a back to back in their first endeavor outside the state of Nebraska this season. Northwestern lost matches to Indiana and Purdue, but pushed both to 4 sets. Illinois, the only unbeaten B1G team and currently ranked 8th (but likely moving up in the polls), beat Purdue in a highly competitive 4 set match (3 of the sets decided by 2 points), and was pushed to 5 by the Hoosiers.