Ball State men’s volleyball will look to earn its first pair of road wins this season when it battles No. 9 Penn State and Saint Francis.

After a disappointing final week of January in which the team suffered a pair of losses against No. 12 Pepperdine and George Mason, the team won’t be caught hanging its head despite falling out of the AVCA Coaches Poll Top 15 for the first time all season.

“The guys have been focused in practice,” head coach Joel Walton said. “They know they have things to work on and we’re trying to change some defensive schemes as well as work on our team’s offense. We’re wanting to go into the weekend with a positive attitude and a belief that we’re going to start playing some better volleyball.”

One area of concern for Ball State centers around sophomore outside attacker Matt Szews. Walton said Szews, the team’s leader in kills, has gotten some extra rest in practice this week due to tendonitis in his knees.

Senior middle attacker Matt Walsh, the team leader in sets played, service aces and total blocks, will look to bounce back from a disappointing match at George Mason in which he finished with his first negative hitting percentage of the season. Walsh, who is currently second in the nation in blocks per set with 1.367, had a good week of practice according to Walton and will continue to be an integral part of Ball State’s offense.

“The great thing with Walsh playing well and our setters getting it to him is when we give him the ball, he’s very effective,” Walton said. “When we don’t give him the ball, a lot of times he’s still drawing the block, so that’s creating opportunities for our other attackers to get on track and have situations where they can take advantage of our opponent’s defense leaning toward Matt Walsh.”

The key to Ball State finding more success on the offensive end will be the ability to keep its opponents guessing.

“It’s the ability to be diverse,” Walton said. “The ability to avoid patterns and spread our offense between a number of different players on our team. Every player that we put on the court is capable of scoring for us. We want to make sure that each of the guys on the team have a role so that we’re keeping Penn State and Saint Francis guessing.”

Penn State has displayed some effective offense through its first five matches. The Nittany Lions currently rank 10th in the nation in hitting percentage at .315, while senior Jalen Penrose is tied for sixth in the country with .556 service aces per set.

Walton said the team would be on alert for senior Aidan Albrecht and sophomore Calvin Mende, two key pieces on a team Walton said is full of dynamic athletes. Mende is leading the team in kills per set with 3.07, while Albrecht is right on his heels in second with 3.06.

The Nittany Lions lead the all-time series against the Cardinals, holding a 62-27 advantage.

Defense will be the name of the game in the match with Saint Francis. Ball State’s defensive wall needs to be in sync and ready to react to a quick Saint Francis offense.

“Saint Francis runs a very fast-tempo offense and that’s going to put some pressure on our block and our team’s defense,” Walton said. “Our guys have to be ready for that.”

Senior Stephen Braswell will be a player to watch when serving. He is currently fourth in the nation in service aces per set with .60, totaling 20 in the team’s 10 matches. Braswell also leads the team in total kills with 93, while junior Cole Thompson leads Saint Francis in kills per set with 2.93.

Ball State is 14-6 against Saint Francis in the series' history.

Ball State will open its weekend against Penn State Friday and play Saint Francis Saturday. Both matches are slated to start at 7 p.m.

Contact Nate Fields with comments at nefields@bsu.edu or on Twitter @NateNada.