Coming off of an 0-3 record against some of the country's best last week at the OU Invitational, the Terrapins will attempt to right the ship this weekend. It will not be an easy task. They face an elite team in Illinois and a potentially vulnerable Northwestern squad.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois (9-2) is fresh off of a 2-1 performance at the Sun Devil Invitational, which took place at Arizona State University last week. Their lone loss came at the hands of the Sun Devils, who jumped from tenth to seventh in the nation after they took down the Illini in Tempe. Illinois' only other loss this season was against Stanford in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
The Illini are a very consistent team. They do everything very well. Their statistics will not blow you away but they know how to get the job done. They have swept eight of the nine teams that they have beaten this season, the lone exception being a 3-1 victory over UNLV.
Illinois forces their opponents to make mistakes, allowing them to score a lot of points very quickly. They average 14.1 kills-per-set, as opposed to 11.0 for their opponents. Opponents only have a .138 attack percentage when facing the Illini. Illinois has a .264 attack percentage.
Maryland will have to be aware of three big hitters Friday evening. Michelle Strizak, Jocelynn Birks, and Katie Stadick all have over 100 kills thus far. Strizak leads the team with 126. Birks, however, averages 4.08 points per match, showing her ability to score in different ways. This three-headed attack will be tough for the Terps to stop, especially with injuries plaguing the team lately.
Northwestern (8-3) enters conference play playing their best volleyball of the season -- winners of four of their last five, as well as three in a row. Maryland will not be their first conference match, as they square off against Rutgers on Friday night. This could benefit the Terps. Taking a long bus ride from Piscataway the day after their Big Ten opener could lead to a sluggish start for the Wildcats.
The Terps will be coming off of their conference opener as well -- against a much stronger Illinois team. It would not be surprising to see this match open with frequent errors and very sloppy play.
The Wildcats have not played nearly as difficult a schedule as the Terps have. They haven't faced a single ranked team this season. Their toughest opponent to date is Western Kentucky, who they lost to 3-0. This could be where the challenging schedule Coach Aird orchestrated for his team could come in handy, as the Terps are much more tested than the Wildcats.
Symone Abbott will look to continue her impressive offensive production for the Wildcats. The heavy-hitter has racked up 134 kills on the season and averages 3.92 points-per-set. Her numbers are far above those of her teammates, so the game plan for the Terps will probably be to mitigate Abbott's impact and make her teammates beat them.
Similar to their offensive attack, Northwestern relies heavily on one player to stop their opponents. Caroline Niedospial has 190 digs this season. The Wildcat in second place in the category only has 86. A smart, strategic game on both offense and defense could allow the Terps to win this match Saturday night.
I expect the Terps to go 1-1 this weekend. Hopefully they can keep the match against Illinois competitive and then use some positive momentum to defeat Northwestern. The Wildcats rely heavily on two players, which could be good for a Maryland team that lacks the depth they hoped to have at this point in the season. Nobody would be disappointed with a 1-1 start to conference play, which is certainly an attainable goal.
Maryland vs Illinois.
When: Friday, September 25th. 7PM
Where: XFINITY Center Pavilion
How to follow: Big Ten Network, live stats via umterps.com, or @TerpsVolleyball on Twitter.
Maryland vs Northwestern
When: Saturday, September 26th, 7PM
Where: XFINITY Center Pavilion
How to follow: BTN Plus, live stats via umterps.com, or @TerpsVolleyball on Twitter.