LINCOLN — In Ohio State’s four-set upset win at Nebraska two weeks ago, the Buckeyes came out on the winning end of a calculated gamble.
When the Huskers had the ball, Ohio State chose to put two blockers on NU’s middle blockers and allow the outside hitters go one on one with the Buckeyes’ pin blockers, counting on a single blocker to slow or back-row defenders to come up with the dig.
It worked in the Buckeyes’ favor. Nebraska’s middles were both held below .200 hitting, and much to coach John Cook’s frustration, the Huskers’ outsides didn’t take advantage of the one-on-one matchups that favor the hitter. Outside hitters Andie Malloy and Mikaela Foecke combined for only 12 kills and a .136 attacking mark.
“(The Buckeyes) gamble a lot on blocking, and they rely on their back-row defense,” Cook said, “and so we’ve got to be able to kill balls.”
No. 2 Nebraska (14-1, 5-1 Big Ten) enters Friday’s 5 p.m. rematch with No. 19 Ohio State (12-6, 2-4) knowing that if it wants to avoid a fourth straight loss to the Buckeyes, its outside hitters have to improve on what has been a tepid start to Big Ten play.
In the Huskers’ six conference matches, Foecke and Malloy have seen their efficiency drop from their overall season marks. Foecke, a hard-hitting sophomore, enjoyed a hot start to the season, hitting better than .300 in nonconference play, but is attacking at .221 against conference opponents.
For Malloy, a graduate transfer from Baylor, her .150 hitting mark in Big Ten play is well below her season-long .236 efficiency.
“As an outside hitter, the goal is to hit .260 or higher,” Malloy said. “That means that you’re really taking care of the ball and being smart and limiting your errors.”
Cook said Malloy and LSU transfer Briana Holman are still making adjustments to facing a higher caliber of competition in the Big Ten. The size and speed of the opponents cut down the margin for error. Shots that used to be kills in the Big 12 or the SEC can be sent back as blocks or dug to start a transition attack.
“I think she’s just been OK,” Cook said of Malloy. “She’s had some good moments, but she’s had some rough moments. If you talk to her and Bri, this is a whole other level from what they’re used to.”
Malloy added that the Big Ten’s schedule format, which often has teams play on back-to-back nights instead of the Big 12’s traditional Wednesday-Saturday lineup, was another adjustment she had to make.
“The first weekend that I had to experience that, that was a little different,” Malloy said. “I had to rest my legs a little bit more than I thought. It’s just kind of being ready to step on the court twice in one weekend.”
When both are on their game, Malloy and Foecke give Husker opponents two kinds of attackers to prepare for. Foecke leans on her power to try to hit shots past — or right through — blockers. Malloy possesses a mixed bag of shots, relying less on force than on keeping defenses off-balance.
“Mikaela is a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, and Andie is more of a four-pitch pitcher,” Cook said. “She’s going to give you shots, cuts, tool it, look one way and hit the other way. She’s a lot more of a finesse player.”
But no matter how they come, Malloy knows 12 kills from the outsides against a team like Ohio State probably doesn’t indicate a Husker win. NU spent much of this week in practice working on hitting drills with a focus on footwork.
In the first meeting with the Buckeyes, the Husker hitters were often slow to recover from their defensive stances to get in position to hit, contributing to a season-low .175 hitting percentage.
Ohio State won the transition battle, and swinging that part of the game would be a step in the right direction for the Huskers to regain a potent outside attack.
“Just being in the right spot where you can hit all the shots,” Malloy said. “That’s one thing we’ve really been working on leading up to playing them again because it’s important that the (opposing) team isn’t camping out on one shot, and we’re trying to hit that shot and getting blocked straight down.”