Penn State women's volleyball vs. Oregon

Outside hitter Erika Pritchard (5) spikes the ball back onto Oregon State's side of the court, resulting in a kill and earning Penn State one point in the third set of the match during Penn State women's volleyball's game against Oregon State at Rec Hall on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Penn State beat Oregon 3-0.

Penn State’s West Coast road trip did not go as planned.

The Nittany Lions saw their five-match winning streak come to an end in stunning fashion, being swept by Oregon on Friday.

The very next night, the blue and white had numerous chances to put Stanford away and reached match point in the fourth set, but ultimately couldn’t hold onto the lead as they fell in five sets.

Penn State exited the weekend with a 5-3 record but only dropped two spots in Monday's AVCA Coaches Poll, coming in at No. 20.

The good news for the Nittany Lions is they put up a fight against their two toughest opponents to date.

The bad news is their schedule doesn’t get any easier.

Penn State wraps up its nonconference slate Friday with matches against a 6-3 Robert Morris team and undefeated West Virginia.

From there, the blue and white begin Big Ten play with an absolute gauntlet in late September through October.

The conference has been among the strongest in the nation for the past several years, and this season is no exception.

The league currently has five teams ranked in the nation’s top 11, and over a nine-match span from Sept. 26 to Oct. 23, the Nittany Lions will face off against all five.

Here are three things to watch as Penn State prepares to battle the Big Ten’s best.

Defense the key to staying competitive

While Penn State has seen offensive contributions from a large number of players, its defending has been what has separated it from the pack so far.

Through the season’s first three weeks, the Nittany Lions lead the country in blocks per set with 3.31 — turning that defense into offense.

Leading the charge is senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord — currently second in the nation in individual blocks per set with 1.85.

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Penn State will continue to rely on its presence at the net against some of the better attacking players in the country, such as Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke and last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, Minnesota right-side hitter Stephanie Samedy.

Brutal three-match stretch in October

Penn State gets two of its biggest conference opponents — No. 3 Ohio State and No. 6 Nebraska — at home.

The other three ranked matchups — dates with No. 9 Purdue, No. 11 Minnesota and No. 2 Wisconsin — all come on the road in consecutive matches at the end of October.

It’s hard to overstate how critical this trio of matchups will be, as the Nittany Lions could find themselves fighting for NCAA Tournament positioning as the season heads toward its final month.

As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Russ Rose’s squad also gets the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers again — this time on the road — in November before the Golden Gophers visit Happy Valley.

Nittany Lions looking to gain momentum this weekend

This weekend’s matches will go a long way to determining the kind of confidence Penn State carries into the Big Ten season.

Riding a two-match losing skid, the Nittany Lions have a chance to right the ship and pick up a couple of wins to close out the out-of-conference portion of the season on a high note.

A loss to the Colonials or Mountaineers — or both — and the blue and white could be searching for answers at the wrong time.

In the Big Ten — arguably the nation’s best volleyball conference — there are no easy matches, which is why a Penn State team firing on all cylinders has a better shot at being among the league’s elite than a Nittany Lions squad that can’t seem to find its footing.

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