That’s what Michigan State had to be thinking after last week’s loss against Northwestern.
The Wildcats entered the game with an 0-10 record in conference play, with a porous defense and an offense that relied on ridiculous kill numbers from Temi Thomas-Ailara.
Yet, when the Spartans traveled to Evanston last week for a breather after three straight top-10 matches, it was those Wildcats who earned the win.
It wasn’t even close. The Spartans were demolished in three sets by a team that the previous week lost to Rutgers and Maryland, the only teams in striking distance of them at the bottom of the conference standings.
MSU, averaging the most blocks per set in the conference this season, was out-blocked 9-4. They conceded five aces and earned none. They were held to a season-low 37 points. By Northwestern.
The worst part for the Spartans? Thomas-Ailara was out with an injury. The best freshman in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s biggest threat, wasn’t on the court at all. Despite that, MSU was outhit by a wide margin in the last two sets.
Now, the same Wildcats team is coming to East Lansing on Saturday looking for a season sweep. How do the Spartans stop what looked like the most stoppable team in the conference?
First, the Spartans need to fix their blocking issues up front. The Spartans looked a lot better against Michigan, decisively out-blocking them 12-6 even as the offense sputtered. They’ll need that same effort up front from Naya Gros, Rebecka Poljan and Emma Monks to win this one.
If Thomas-Ailara plays, she must be kept in check. Although Nia Robinson (13 kills) and Ella Grbac (12 kills) did a good job filling in for her last time the teams played, there’s no substitute for a player averaging 4.5 kills per set in conference play.
Northwestern has not commented on her status for this game, so the Spartans also need to be prepared for the Wildcats to spread the ball around like they did in the first game.
End of set play needs to be better than the last game. In all three sets, the Spartans played to a tie around 15, then watched Northwestern go on a late run that gave them easy set points. The team can’t be fatigued or lose morale against a team like this.
If the Spartans want to salvage the season series, they’ll need to change the way they look at Northwestern. There are no breaks in Big Ten volleyball, and MSU just got a rude awakening.
Ian Drummond is Impact’s lead volleyball reporter.