Spartans hit the road to face Northwestern and Illinois

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Meredith Norris/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Ian Drummond, Volleyball Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING – Michigan State volleyball enters this weekend with as much momentum as they can hope for coming off two losses last week. Though they were swept by No. 4 Wisconsin, the team performed better against No. 6 Minnesota, taking a set off the Gophers in a four-set loss. 

Fortunately for the Spartans, they don’t have to play two top-10 teams this weekend. Friday’s game at Northwestern is the Spartans’ first game against an unranked opponent since their Oct. 18 game against Rutgers. 

The Wildcats are not having a good year. They come into the game with a 9-13 record. They are the only team in the Big Ten without a conference win, losing 10 straight to open play. They are 2-6 in Evanston, where MSU will play on Friday. Though they took fellow Big Ten bottom feeders Rutgers and Maryland to five sets each, they still couldn’t pull out a win.

Looking into Northwestern’s stats, it’s not hard to see why they’re down right now. Opposing teams hit .265 against them, while they hit only .196. The Wildcats are prone to errors as well – they could have won the Maryland game had they not committed 13 more errors than the Terrapins. 

They are also last in the Big Ten at blocks per set, which should be easy pickings for an MSU middle blocking crew that averages 2.68 blocks per set in conference play.

Northwestern does not have many standout players, but there is one big exception. Freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara leads the conference in kills per set with 4.56. The Spartans will have their hands full trying to contain her, though the team around her is less of a threat. 

The Spartans’ second match on their road trip is at No. 19 Illinois, a much tougher opponent. The Illini have started Big Ten play 5-5, but all five losses have come to top-10 opponents. Against other teams, they’ve dominated. In five conference wins, they’ve dropped only one set to No. 16 Purdue. 

Much like Northwestern, Illinois is somewhat weak in the middle, ranking in the bottom five in blocks per set. Unlike Northwestern, the rest of their team is pretty good. They’re out-hitting opponents .221 to .186 with 14.03 kills per set, plus solid back line play with 15.10 digs per set. All these are at or near top-five in the conference. 

Notable players for the Illini include a pair of talented outside hitters in Jacqueline Quade and Megan Cooney, who both rank in the top 15 for kills per set in the conference. Setter Diana Brown is one of the top setters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.15 assists per set. These players give the Illini a potent attack that should make Michigan State worry.

The most likely result this weekend is a split. After dropping three ranked games, Northwestern should be easy pickings for an MSU team that has momentum from strong play against Minnesota. The Spartans may take a set or two off of Illinois, but will probably not be able to beat them.