In sink-or-swim stretch of schedule, Huskers will test the patches of fixes made after first loss

In sink-or-swim stretch of schedule, Huskers will test the patches of fixes made after first loss
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — After a leaky block and defense against Ohio State two weekends ago led to Nebraska’s first loss in 28 matches, the Huskers patched up those areas in wins over Indiana and Purdue this past weekend.

Now, coach John Cook said Monday, the key is for No. 2 Nebraska (14-1, 5-1 Big Ten) to repeat those efforts in Friday’s rematch with the No. 19 Buckeyes in Columbus.

“I think defensively we were dialed in, our block was good, and we were serving tough,” Cook said after NU held Indiana and Purdue to a combined .042 attack percentage in the 3-0 victories.

“That was probably the biggest jump from what we did (against Ohio State).”

Cook’s teams traditionally have gotten stronger at blocking as the season progresses; the Huskers become more familiar with their conference opponents and get more comfortable working together to form blocking tandems. In six sets played last weekend, NU had 18 blocks, with senior Amber Rolfzen earning Big Ten defensive player of the week after tying her season high with nine blocks against Purdue on Sunday.

The coach said his two new starters who handle blocking responsibilities this year, outside hitter Andie Malloy and middle blocker Briana Holman, have improved as blockers as they’ve adjusted to their first seasons in the Big Ten.

“It’s just a fine line,” Cook said. “That’s why we work on it every day.”

Nebraska, which moved up one spot in Monday’s coaches poll, now has four days to prepare its block and defense for the unique challenge Ohio State presents. In the first meeting on Oct. 1, Buckeyes setter Taylor Hughes kept the Huskers’ defense off balance by attacking on the second touch.

As Nebraska’s defenders were forced to deal with Hughes as a threat, it opened up more space for All-America middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe, who had 12 kills on .346 hitting, and junior outside hitter Luisa Schirmer, who scored a match-best 16 kills.

Cook said Nebraska must be much better communicating on the floor so every Husker knows her defensive responsibility in the rematch.

“It’s just a matter of being alert and preparing and understanding when (Hughes) is trying to attack,” Cook said. “We’ll have to prepare better than we did and execute better. But, she did a number on us.”

Friday’s match will start a critical stretch of the schedule with NU playing four of five matches against ranked opponents, highlighted by hosting this week’s new No. 1 team, Wisconsin, and last week’s top-ranked team, Minnesota, next weekend at the Devaney Center.

“As each week goes, the matches get bigger and more important if we’re trying to win a Big Ten championship,” Cook said. “There’s also a lot of other things on the line with the NCAA tournament and seedings and so on. Every week is really a big week, and you cannot afford to lose. You have to win if you want to be in the hunt.”

Huskers make adjustments

One of the biggest factors in the Buckeyes’ victory over NU was Ohio State being stronger in the serve and pass. OSU had only one more ace but routinely forced poor first contacts that pulled Nebraska out of system.

Nebraska’s .175 attack percentage against the Buckeyes was its lowest of the year.

Cook said Ohio State exploited a vulnerability in the Huskers’ serve receive pattern that was first revealed by Creighton, in which an NU attacker would momentarily obscure the view of sophomore defensive specialist Kenzie Maloney, making it more difficult for her to pass serves.

Maloney has statistically been the Huskers’ best passer this season according to internal metrics, Cook said, and NU experimented with adjustments to its serve receive patterns last weekend to clear the way for Maloney and libero Justine Wong-Orantes to more easily read the ball.

“I think we’ve corrected it because that one rotation where we got burned against Ohio State has been our best rotation this past weekend,” Cook said.

Badgers get first No. 1 ranking

For the first time in school history, Wisconsin received the No. 1 ranking in Monday’s coaches poll. The Badgers (14-1, 6-0) had been ranked No. 2 for three weeks this season and moved into the top spot after previously top-ranked Minnesota lost in five sets at Penn State last week.

The Nittany Lions moved back into the top 10 at No. 10. Both Wisconsin and Penn State are 6-0 in Big Ten matches to lead the conference standings.

Nebraska jumped up to No. 2 with Minnesota falling to No. 3, followed by No. 4 Texas and No. 5 San Diego.

Nine Big Ten teams are ranked in this week’s top 25.