Penn State vs. Illinois: DigNittany Q & A

The Match: Penn State vs. Illinois

When & Where: September 24, 2010, 8:00 p.m. ET.; Huff Hall, Champaign, Illinois

Media Coverage: Game Tracker and BTN Tape Delay – Sunday, September 26th, 7:00 p.m. E.T.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics?

For the first seven matches of this season, Illinois played exceptionally well, jumping out to a 7-0 record (and a #3 AVCA Poll ranking), before dropping two of their last three matches — a 3-2 heartbreaker to then-#7 (now #4) Nebraska in Lincoln on September 11th and a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati  on September 17th in Louisville. 

Granted, Illinois was without Senior All-American OH Laura DeBruler for both of those losses (she was diagnosed on September 7th with mononeucleosis), and without 6-3 Jr. Opp. Michelle Bartsch from midway in the third set of the Nebraska loss (when she left the match with what appeared to be an ankle injury).

Still, statistically speaking, the Illini aren’t performing as well defensively as they did last year (when they went 26-5).  For example, in 2009, Penn State and Illinois ranked #1 and #2 respectively in the Big 10 in Opponent Attack Percentage, with PSU holding opponents to .108 hitting and Illinois holding opponents to .147.  In 2010 (we know it’s very, very early) Penn State still ranks #1 in the Big Ten, with their opponents hitting a meager .052, whereas Illinois has dropped to 11th place, with their opponents hitting .192.

The story is similar with blocking: In 2009, Penn State ranked first in the Big Ten with 3.23 blocks/game and Illinois was 3rd, with 2.70 blocks/game. In 2010, Penn State still ranks first (3.28 blocks/game), but Illinois has dropped to 11th place (1.93 blocks/game).

Individually, the Penn State players’ blocking statistics haven’t changed much from 2009 to 2010 (Arielle Wilson has dropped from 1.55 blocks/game to 1.29 blocks/game, and Fatima Balza’s totals are almost identical – 1.43 blocks/game in 2009 and 1.48 blocks/game in 2010). But Illinois’ Johannah Bangert has fallen from 1.61 blocks/game in 2009 (1st in the Big Ten) to 1.16 blocks/game in 2010 (10th in the Big Ten), and Michelle Bartsch has dropped from 1.14 blocks/game in 2009 (7th in the Big Ten) to 0.76 blocks/game.

DigNittany Q&A

So, with that background, here are our questions to our guest analyst — Keystonekid

DigNittany: Even though it’s early in the season, the drop-off in those defensive and blocking statistics is pretty striking.  What do you think are the reasons?    

Keystonekid: Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, especially blocking. Teams may be setting away from certain players, which I would imagine is the case with Bartsch.  In comparing the attack percentages of PSU’s opponents and Illinois’ opponents, I think the schedules play a big role in the difference.  Illinois’ schedule overall has been consistently tougher at this point, and that is going to impact that statistic pretty significantly. Although both teams have played Top 5 opponents, PSU has played a handful of matches against teams who physically were not going to be able to generate offense against them.  That is going to have a big impact on their opponent’s attack percentage.

DigNittanyCoach Hambly was quoted in The Daily Illini  as saying that even at 80%, Laura DeBruler is “one of the best players in the country.”  What do you think of that assessment, and what do you think will be the keys for Penn State in matching up against her?

Keystonekid:  Well, DeBruler is one of the top players in the country, but Hambley is certainly employing some hyperbole here. He really is saying that “we are a much better team with her in there at 80%.”  She has a tremendous impact on her team because she competes so hard, and is a winner. Whether she plays well or not, her presence is a real factor for Illinois.  For PSU, serving, and match-ups, are the keys to managing Debruler. If PSU can get Blair Brown  matched up against her, Debruler can be contained, Carpenter is undersized and inexperienced as a blocker, if that is the match-up, Debruler can give them fits.  If PSU can serve tough and keep Illinois out of system PSU can generate a good block set-up, you dont want to have to deal with Debruler against a split block.

DigNittany: Illinois certainly isn’t a one-player show: Sr. Setter Hillary Haen  is ranked 2nd nationally with 12.67 assists/set , 6-1 Sr. MB Johannah Bangert is ranked 11th nationally with a .434 hitting percentage, 6-2 Jr. OH Colleen Ward is ranked 22nd nationally with 4.32 kills/set. , and  Bartsch, 6-1 Fr. OH Jazmine Orazco, and 5-9  Fr. L/DS Jennifer Bonilla all have played well.  Which of these players do you think will be the most difficult for Penn State to match up with, and why?  

Keystonekid:  The biggest difference between Illinois this year and last, is they are setting the middle more, and are much more balanced offensively. Because of that, there isn’t one player that PSU has to be more focused on, its the fact that all of them are involved that creates a more difficult task defensively.  Getting Ward as a transfer from Florida has made a huge impact for Illinois. She moved them from one of the top teams in the conference, to a team that can compete to win a national title.

DigNittany: Flipping that question around, Penn State has some firepower of its own, with Blair Brown  (Sr., Opp., 3.56 kills/set; .348 attack %), Arielle Wilson, (Sr., MH,  #7 nationally with a .456 attack %; 31st nationally with 1.29 blocks/set), Deja McClendon (Fr., OH, 3.45 kps, .371 attack %), Sr. L  Alyssa D’Errico (3rd nationally with 0.79 aces/set), and Fatima Balza (Sr., MH, 8th nationally with 1.48 blocks/set) leading the way, with Cathy Quilico (Sr. DS), Kristin Carpenter (So. Setter ) and, increasingly, 6-6 Fr. MH  Katie Slay all making significant contributions.   Who do you look for to have big matches against Illinois?

Keystonekid: As good and talented as Illinois is, PSU won’t exactly be showing up with a knife at a gun fight. Penn State is as good a blocking team as any in the country — and it may be the best.  I think  Deja may be the key player for PSU. If she has a good night, the Nittany Lions will be very tough to beat, as I think you know what you’re going to get from Brown , Wilson, D’Errico and company.  Having said that, I think Wilson is ready for a breakout match. Middles have the biggest adjustments to make when you are breaking in a new setter, and there have been some miscues between  Wilson and Carpenter. When those two players get into a rhythm, look out!

DigNittany: So, what’s your prediction?

Keystonekid: I think it will be a very interesting match. Who will get the match-ups they want? How healthy is  DeBruler? What will her stamina level be? Those will be big factors in the outcome. Though I look for a hotly contested match, I’m calling PSU in 4.  

DigNittany: Thanks so much for your taking the time to give us your thoughts.  We also think it will be an exciting match that will be great for the fans.