Match Preview: Penn State vs. Minnesota (with Lionsfan and Ugopher)

If this is Thursday, it must be Minnesota

Penn State plays two matches this weekend — at Wisconsin on Friday night and at Minnesota on Saturday night.  For logistical reasons, we’re posting our Minnesota Match Preview today, and will post our Wisconsin Match Preview on Friday.  That makes sense, right?

Match Preview (with Lionsfan and Ugopher)      

DigNittany: Minnesota is 11-2 this season, with a 3-1 win over Texas at Texas (followed the next day by a 3-1 loss to Texas at Texas), 3-0 away wins over Dayton and Illinois, a 3-1 away win over Northwestern, and a 3-2 neutral site loss to Kansas State.  They’re leading the Big Ten overall with a .341 team attack %, led by 6-3 Jr. MB Tori Dixon (.508 attack %) and 6-2 Sr. OH Katherine Harms (.400 attack %), and have held their opponents to a .161 attack % (good for 5th in the B1G). 

What stands out to each of you about the Gophers, and who do you think will be the most important players for them against Penn State? 

Lionsfan: With the coaching transition, some people seemed to think that the Gophers would go through a year or two of “down” time before rising up again to be the perennial contenders they were. (Note: I was not one of those people . . . .)  If this is a “down” transition year, the rest of the country is in for a rude awakening once Hugh McCutcheon gets settled in. 

The Gophers have been solid, and they have been solid on the road.  The Texas split looked better for the Gophers than it did for the Longhorns, and there are three things to note about the K-State loss:

  1. It was in 5 sets;
  2. It came on a day when the Gophers had to play Dayton earlier (K-State only had one match that day); and
  3. The Wildcats are a good team.

So neither of those losses are bad. 

Dixon and Harms have been so consistent and solid, and if 6-0 Jr. OH Ashley Wittman is also on, it could spell big trouble for the Lions.  Those are three major go-to players, and if I had to guess, I’d say Wittman would be the key player for the Gophers.  She had low hitting percentages in their two losses, and targeting her might be the best bet.  You aren’t going to stop all three of them, that’s for sure.  And if the supporting cast also steps up (6-3 Sr. MB Dana Knudsen had a great outing in their most recent match, at Northwestern), it’s going to make things very difficult for Penn State.

Ugopher:  The passing has been much better this year than I expected, which is interesting, considering that two of their primary passers, 6-1 OH Daly Santana and 5-5 DS/L Lindsey Lawmaster, are freshmen.  Both have done very well in the back row in both serve receive and digging. 

Katherine Harms will be very important for the Gophers.  We have seen flashes in the past of what she can do, but she had been inconsistent and with a tendency to lose confidence when blocked.  She has been very consistent this year, able to shrug off blocks, and is playing at a very high level.  She has a nice variety of shots and has also improved her defense tremendously. 

Tori Dixon is playing at a high level.  She is in tremendous shape this year and can be unstoppable on the slide.  She may not be the blocking machine we thought she might be, but she is at least a shot changer. 

In addition to their front row offense, Dixon, Harms, Santana, and Wittman can also terminate out of the back row.  This could be the most well rounded team Minnesota has had in a number of years. 

Two other freshmen — 5-11 Fr. OH Karlee Hauer and 5-5 Fr. DS/L Kalysta White — have also seen significant playing time, although mostly in the serving area.  But it is obvious that new coach Hugh McCutcheon isn’t afraid to go to them.

Pair of Aces


          Photo courtesy of  E20Ci

DigNittany:  Both teams have stellar servers – 5-11 So. S Micha Hancock has 27 aces in 45 sets for Penn State, and  6-1 Fr. OH Daly Santana has 26 aces in 45 sets for Minnesota.  What can you tell us about the importance of these players serves to their respective teams. 

Lionsfan: I feel like this year, Micha’s serve has been a little more erratic.  Both Hancock and Santana also have 45 service errors apiece, which puts a damper on those numbers.  You just never know . . . some matches, they might not make a difference at all.  In others, they can be key– either in getting a fast start (à la Hancock in the home Nebraska match last year) or in climbing back late in a set where they’re down (à la Hancock in the home Nebraska match this year).

If this Saturday’s match is close and runs long (which I’m guessing it will), both players could have an impact with their serve, at least for one mini-run apiece.  We’ll just have to wait and see.  I don’t think either team can count on  to make the difference in the match, and  alone won’t put one team above the other. 

I’ve only seen the Gophers twice this year.  Well, once is more like it: the online broadcast of the K-State match didn’t really count (that camera was real far away . . . I had to squint, and I could sort of make out human shapes. Wait, who won that match?), and the other was the B1G Network broadcast of the Illinois win (and they looked might impressive). 

Ugopher: Santana has a serve we haven’t seen in Minnesota since Meghan Cumpston in 2006.  It is a hard and, at times, slicing serve.  It is quite a contrast to the serving styles we have seen here in Gopherland the past few years.  The downside is that it can also lead to service errors, but the coaching staff hasn’t told her to back off.  What doesn’t show up in the stats are the overpasses and out of system balls that her serve creates. 

I believe that Hancock and Santana are very similar in their service.  Both hit the ball hard with topspin and can move the ball around the court.   The obvious difference is left hand vs. right hand.   What could negate the advantage that Hancock and Santana serves have over other teams is that each squad have faced these serves in practice.  Both teams should be used to handling hard, fast serves.

Hold the High Fives on that Block Party 

DigNittany: Last year when Penn State played Minnesota at the Sports Pavilion, #6-ranked Penn State held off a the Golden Gophers (#15 in AVCA poll), 3-2 (27-25, 25-17, 23-25, 23-25, 15-12), in a match that featured 17.5 team blocks for the Nittany Lions to zero for the Golden Gophers.  This season, Penn State ranks second in the B1G with 2.93 blocks/set compared to 2.29 blocks/set for Minnesota (8th in the B1G). 

Two questions: 1) do you think the block will be as key this time around as it was last season, and 2) are you at all surprised at the disparity in blocking statistics between the two teams?

Lionsfan: When you look at the averages, the numbers don’t seem so disparate. But when you look at the actual numbers (PSU with 24/216/132 versus Minny’s 22/162/103), you wonder if that might be where Penn State can frustrate Minnesota’s hitters, even if it’s just soft blocks.  Get in their heads and slow them down.  That’s at least the FIRST step, but there’s a lot more the Nittany Lions need to accomplish on the ensuing touches. 

Blocking has been a  Penn State strength over the years, so that doesn’t really surprise me.  What would surprise me would be another 17.5-0 advantage in team blocks (and even with that eye-opening stat, the match still went a close five!).  The Gophers will not let that happen again.

Ugopher:  1) No, I don’t.  Last season, Minnesota was still trying to find a line-up that would work.  They are much more settled in the offensive positions this year and have more balance.  This should provide Minnesota with offensive options and force the blockers to stay at home or guess.   Of the 17.5 team blocks last year, only 3 were solo blocks.  If Minnesota can force the PSU middle blockers to stay home and respect both sides of the court, Minnesota should have success.  And, remember, despite being out-blocked 17.5 to 0, Minnesota had a good chance to win that match. 

2)  Not really.  Minnesota is still learning a new blocking scheme.  And, something which is different than most have played before so it will take time for the block to come around.  The Gophers are improving in that area, though.  And, stats don’t show the number of balls deflected up, allowing a passer to make a good pass to the setter and run the offense.  This is another factor to Minnesota’s high hitting percentage this season. 

You mentioned last year’s match where the Gophers fell short, but  I prefer to think back two years, when the Golden Gophers knocked off the Nittany Lions in five after trailing by two sets at the break, in an epic match with the fifth won by Minnesota 23-21.  Whether that’s my selective memory kicking in, or not, if history holds, this match should be a great one!

Crystal Ball

Keys to the Win

DigNittany: So what do you see as the keys for your team to come away with a win?

Lionsfan: Maintaining focus and smart shots.  Be efficient.  With the triple threat staring at them across the net, 6-4 Jr. RS/Opp Ariel Scott and 6-1 Jr. OH Deja McClendon simply can’t check out at any point in the match.  They can’t have off nights, and we’ve seen some of those already.  Without a third bankable option to go to, the Lions simply can’t afford that.

Then there’s that Minnesota crowd to deal with.  I have always said that the one place I would love to go see a match other than Rec Hall is the Sports Pavilion.  I have always loved the Gopher program, have always rooted for them when they don’t play Penn State, and have always admired their fans and that atmosphere there.  It just seems so fun and infectious, and I would love to visit some time and catch a match there. 

It’s a great rivalry. I’ll never forget the 2010 match there.  I was away that night at a party, and when I came home I excitedly started to watch the broadcast on my TiVo, which I had programmed an extra hour (for a total of 3!) thinking it would be enough.  It wasn’t . . . and when my recording stopped with the two teams tied in extra points in the 5th set, I had to go online to find out what happened.  Great Gopher comeback, winning the last three sets by two points each  — 23-21 in the 5th

Then last year I thought it was going to happen again.  Penn State with a two set lead, Minny comes back to win sets 3 and 4 by two points each . . . but (phew!) PSU pulls it out 15-12 in the 5thset.  

Saturday night should be another exciting match, and no lead will be safe.  Thankfully, Penn State has experienced the atmosphere at the Sports Pavilion.  This was the weekend that tripped up the Lions last year, and I know they will be eager to get another shot at going 2-0.  I know they also want to erase any doubts that they can play a Top 10 team tough on the road. 

Ugopher:  I think Katherine Harms will be the key for Minnesota.  She’s athletic with great jumping ability and can really get on top of the ball.  If she continues her torrid play, the Gophers will be hard to beat.  

And, can Minnesota slow down Ariel Scott?  She has turned into an extremely good player and probably the player that worries me the most. 

Home court should be an advantage, too.  The Gophers haven’t played at home since September 10th, so Gopher fans are hungry to see their team play.  If Gophers can come out strong and keep the crowd in it, the emotion could carry the Gophers to the win. 

It may be an advantage in more ways than one that this is the second match of the weekend.  Obviously, Penn State will be a slight disadvantage having to play on the road two nights in a row.  But, Minnesota’s Friday night match vs. Ohio State should allow the freshmen and transfers (Dana Knudsen and Alexandra Palmer) to experience a large and enthusiastic home crowd and not be as overwhelmed on Saturday evening.

Who Wins?

DigNittany: Looking at the Rich Kern and AVCA polls, #1-ranked Penn State should be the distinct favorite over #10-ranked Minnesota.  But Pablo, a statistically-based computational-thingy rating system, has Minnesota ranked #2 and Penn State ranked #4 (and we feel compelled to point out that in DigNittany’s North Pole Poll, Penn State is ranked #5 and Minnesota is tied with Hawaii for #9 – not nearly as big a spread.)  Plus, it’s a home match for the Golden Gophers.  

Who should be favored here (and is Penn State ranked too high; is Minnesota is ranked too low?  Both?  Neither?) 

Lionsfan: Penn State has four impressive wins on its resume, but three were at home.  Minny has proved it can play tough on the road, and it is always tough at home. I don’t think Penn State is really No. 1, but I understand why they have been placed there.  It makes sense.  But I think both teams should be ranked closer to the middle of the Top 10 than where they are ranked right now — PSU not quite as great as No. 1, the Gophers better than No. 10.

I think the Gophers should be favored in this match — other than Nebraska and Hawaii, they have the best home-court advantage—and I think they will win. I really hope I’m wrong! 

Ugopher:  Well, we know how the AVCA poll works and it isn’t a very scientific process.  I mean, there were two voters who voted Minnesota #17!  I’ll give Rich Kern’s poll a little more credence because, you know, it’s Rich Kern! 

And Pablo is a nice system, but I still think the body of work for each team is still too small to make any big determinations. 

It’s another tough year to rank teams, which makes it fun for us fans.  There were times against Nebraska where Penn State looked unbeatable.  And there were times where, well, not so much. 

And, Minnesota looked extremely good in their first match vs. Texas and against Illinois.  But there have also been times where their youth has been exposed. 

Maybe Penn State isn’t the #1 team in the country, but they are definitely in the top four.  They have nice wins this season (Stanford, Texas, and Nebraska) but they have all come in the friendly confines of Rec Hall.   How will they fare when they hit the road this weekend? 

I could see Minnesota as high as #7 right now, as they have some nice wins (Texas, Dayton, and Illinois) that have occurred on the road or neutral court.  But they still need to prove themselves.   A win over Penn State (and Ohio State the evening before) will be a great step forward for this team. 

Overall, I give Minnesota the slight edge due to the home court advantage and the second night of a back-to-back on the road for Penn State. 

My prediction is Minnesota 3-1.  At least, I hope so.  I’m giving up an annual golf weekend for this match!  But, I would not be surprised to see it go five sets once again.  Either way, I’m looking forward to it!!!!

DigNittany: Thanks for your time.  We appreciate it.

Lionsfan: My pleasure.

Ugopher: Thank you.  Penn State is a great volleyball rival and I respect the program and their fans and always look forward to their annual visit.