Match Day: #7 Penn State vs. Northwestern (with 8M Stat Analysis and more)

Date (Time)OpponentSiteMedia
(7:00 p.m. ET)
Rec Hall
Univ. Park,



It’s Senior Night this Wednesday, when #7-ranked Penn State (25-4, 14-4) takes on the Northwestern Wildcats (14-15, 6-12) for at Rec Hall.  These teams met on October 10th at Northwestern, and it was a great match if you were a Wildcat fan (they won, 3-2 — 18-25, 25-23, 24-26, 25-17, 12-15).  After the match, their head coach, Keylor Chan, seemed pretty pumped too:

I thought we hit the best we’ve hit all year.  You have to challenge the block, you have to take risks, and if they block you, so be it. This team is searching for a level of confidence and an identity and I’ve been talking about the process and how much work we have to put through that, and we don’t want the wins and losses to define us.

Interestingly, Coach Rose made the same point about what defines a player and a team after last weekend’s win over Iowa:

I told the players earlier today, losing, or your statistics, don’t really define you.  They’re just an indication of how you played.  How you bounce back from defeat or challenges is how people will define you and you can define yourselves.

In that first match, 6-2 Sr. OH Megan Courtney tied with 6-1 So. OH Simone Lee for the team lead in kills, with 14, and also came up with 23 digs.  And was injured on the next-to-last play of the 5th set.

Megan Courtney
Megan Courtney
Aiyana Whitney
Aiyana Whitney

But she’s back strong, and will be one of four Penn State seniors — Lara Caraway, Megan Courtney, Kendall Pierce and Aiyana Whitney — who will be honored in a prematch ceremony.  Prior to Wednesday night’s match, these players have recorded a career record of 128-12 (60-8 mark in the B1G), back-to-back Big Ten titles in 2012 and 2013, and back-to-back NCAA titles in 2013 and 2014, with trips to the NCAA Final Four for the past three seasons.  Sure, they had help (Micha, Nia, Dom, Lacey — we haven’t forgotten you) but this is an impressive bunch.


Kendall Pierce
Kendall Pierce
Lara Caraway


Match Preview

by 8M

This is rematch we’ve all been waiting for.  It’s not gonna take much to get us all hyped up for this one.  I think the players feel the same way, probably chomping at the bit to get another shot at NU.

This time it’s on our home court — I just hope not everyone has left for Thanksgiving break.  I mean how could anyone miss volleyball for turkey.  :P
Up to this point, Penn State’s conference record is 14-4 and Northwestern’s is 6-12 (although, one of the Wildcat’s wins was a 5-set victory against PSU back on 10/10/15).

Stats: Side-by-Side – Penn State and Northwestern

I worked up a chart comparing the most relevant statistical categories for both teams (conference-play only) and added a twist.

I found the results interesting:

1) PSU leads NU in hitting efficiency differential difference by .137%.
2) PSU leads NU in kills/set differential difference by 1 full kill/set.
3) PSU and NU are about even in aces/set.
4) PSU leads NU in blocks/set differential difference by 2 full blocks/set.
5) PSU leads NU in digs/set differential difference by just over 1 dig/set.

I believe these are significant statistical advantages for PSU. Penn State is predicted to win this match in straight sets, according to Massey Ratings, which rates a Penn State victory at a 99% probability. Of course, we all know the games are not won “on paper,” they must be played out on court.


Stat Comparison

Stats: The Last Time They Met

Northwestern has improved significantly this season compared to last season.  Case in point: they were able to defeat defending National Champion Penn State in 5 sets at Evanston back on October 10, 2015.

There were many contributors to that outcome — as noted above, Northwestern played very well — but several Penn State hitters, unfortunately, were not very efficient on that night: Ali Frantti hit negative -.034% and Megan Courtney hit  .167%.   Penn State as a team hit at a .193% clip vs .211% for the Wildcats, had 25 attack errors vs 30 for Northwestern, had 14 blocks vs 8 for NU, and had 2 aces and 5 service errors vs 5 aces and 15 service errors for NU.

So, all in all, not much difference between the teams.  It could have gone either way.  Although, NU won a the most important part of the battle — serve-receive/sideout.  Whoever wins the sideout battle in a set wins that set.  Northwestern was just incrementally better than Penn State for the match (58.1% vs 57.1%), which was enough for the Wildcats to take the match. I have updated the PSU sideout chart showing all 13 matches played since and including the NU match dated 10/10/15.  Considering 5 of PSU’s last 13 matches were on the road, they did well. Unfortunately, I could not locate any sideout stats for NU to compare, as they do not post them on their website.

Last Match

Northwestern’s Conference Play

Northwestern has put in some surprise performances this year. They were able to take a set from Minnesota and put down 63 kills vs 57 for the Gophers.  However, they also had almost double the attack errors (29 vs 17 for Minnesota).  In that match, the Wildcats had four hitters hit double digit kills, which shows balance in their attack, making it harder for blockers to key in on one person.

The Wildcats also defeated Michigan State 3-1 on 10/31/15.  They hit .310 vs .246 for the Spartans, out blocked Michigan State 14-10, and had 2 more aces.

For the majority of Northwestern’s matches, though, the Wildcats have tasted defeat.  They were swept 7 times in the first half of conference play. However, in this second half, they have taken, at the very least, one set from every opponent in their last 7 matches. This shows me that they have built up a fighting mentality and belief in themselves.  Their play, in general, has been inconsistent, but they are capable of putting it all together for a match, and playing spoiler for teams (like Penn State) looking to get better seeding in the tourney.