Nebraska is firmly in the midst of the stretch run of the regular season with just four matches remaining, and despite suffering three conference losses — and six overall — the Huskers still have all of their goals in front of them, including the Big Ten title.
As always, however, the Huskers are taking it day by day.
“We don’t really talk much about it, we’re just trying to talk about what level we want to play at,” Cook said. “If you look statistically, if you look at the Big Ten stats, we’re number one in several categories, and the one we’re not is in attack efficiency. So that’s kind of been our focus is how can we raise that? Well, it’s a combination of passing, it’s combination of setting, it’s a combination of making good decisions.
“So that’s been a big focus this week, because defensively we’re we’re top of the conference in a lot of areas. So we’ve got that but we know we’ve got to score better to beat these top teams.”
Through 16 Big Ten matches, Nebraska is first in opponent hitting percentage (.152), opponent kills (11.17 per set), opponent assists (10.31 per set), aces (1.56 per set), serve receive errors (0.67 per set) and digs (18.65 per set). The Huskers are also second in assists (13.57 per set) and kills (14.72 per set). However, they’re only sixth in hitting percentage at .235.
Nebraska hasn’t cleared .220 hitting since the win at Iowa on Oct. 20, a streak of seven straight sub-par offensive matches. Cook has shuffled his pin-hitters in and out throughout that stretch as they’ve all struggled to consistently produce.
“Just like in football, you’ve got to block, you’ve got to make good decisions, you’ve got to make the right throws,” Cook said. “So it’s just a really fine line. But if you look, there are a lot of teams that aren’t hitting very well. The level of play and the level of defense in this conference, I’ve never seen it this strong and how good these teams are defensively and blocking. Indiana, which is one of the worst, they’re still really playing at a really high level defensively.
“It’s hard to kill balls, and we’re still killing a lot of balls compared to other teams. If you look at our kills per game, I think we’re number one, but it doesn’t feel like it. That’s why we’re having so many digs, because we’re in these long rallies trying to kill balls. So it’s just a combination of it’s really a lot of teamwork and all the cylinders have to be hitting.”
Only Minnesota has seen its opponents average more digs per set than Nebraska as the Huskers’ foes are digging 16.31 balls per set, pointing to the length of many of Nebraska’s rallies.
Kenzie Knuckles said the key to improving in that area is trusting their training, one of Cook’s favorite phrases. Knuckles described the Huskers as “unstoppable” in practice, though translating that to matches has been a struggle at times this year.
“It’s tough that we had to have those games where it didn’t translate over from how we play in practice to our games, but that’s trial and error and just allowing us to be able to work through those matches allows us to see that in other matches, and kind of put a stop to it a little bit faster,” Knuckles said. “So I think that’s helped us in the experience category a little bit.”
A 4-0 finish to the season would clinch a Big Ten title for the Huskers, but that won’t come easy. Three of those matches will be against top-15 teams including the conference’s top two attacking teams in No. 15 Penn State (.272) and No. 5 Wisconsin (.267).
“We’re so excited,” Knuckles said. “Honestly, we’re just taking it game by game. If you look at the big picture, it’s like yeah, we play a lot of teams that are pretty good the next four or four games, but taking it game by game is all we can do.”
First up, however, is Penn State, and the Nittany Lions (19-7, 12-4 Big Ten) have the Huskers’ complete attention. The next chapter in one of college volleyball’s best rivalries is set for Friday night at the Devaney Center.
“It’s Russ [Rose], it’s Penn State, it’s tradition, and we always have great matches with them,” Cook said. “They’re fun to play and our crowd loves when we play Penn State. We have a lot of rivals but I think that is a respect rival. It’s two great programs battling it out, going head-to-head. There’s a lot on the line in this match for both teams and it’s fun. Everybody’s looking forward to playing these matches.”
Knuckles said the Penn State always carries an extra level of hype for the Huskers.
“A huge part of it is Coach Cook and Russ Rose,” Knuckles said. “They’re frenemies. They love each other, they talk, whatever, but at the same time when it’s game day, they’re like, Coach is on us really hard. So we just think it’s funny and it’s kind of like us having Coach’s back a little bit, so we just get really excited to play them for that reason.”
The Huskers and Nittany Lions have already faced each other once this season as Nebraska beat Penn State 3-1 in University Park back on Oct. 8. Middle blocker Kaitlyn Hard led the way for the Nittany Lions in that match with 11 kills on .409 hitting, and slowing her down is where things will start for the Huskers according to Kayla Caffey.
“I think we just definitely have to keep Kaitlyn Hord under control,” Caffey said. “I think that we did that pretty well last match. I think if we let her go off, then we’ll struggle a little bit. I think that we just did a really good job doing the things that we can control like serving, passing well. That was my favorite match this entire season. It was just so fun and really good energy. Even though it was at their house, we were feeding off their fan section. So it was really fun. I’m really excited to play them again.”
Hard is averaging 2.97 kills per set on .434 hitting this season, including a Big Ten best .470 in conference play. Outside hitter Jonni Parker is Penn State’s leader in kills, averaging 3.76 per set on .249 hitting. In Big Ten play, libero Jenna Hampton is leading the conference with 4.81 digs per set and setter Gabby Blossom is third in assists per set at 11.7.
Knuckles said the key to disrupting Penn State’s attack will be tough serving on their end, but they’ll have to keep their errors low while doing it.
“You’re always riding a fine line and there are nights where we’ve been really good and there are nights where we have been pretty good,” Cook said. “It was a while ago when we had a bad night. So serving is a strength for us. I feel sorry for our passers. It’s really hard to get confidence passing when you have to deal with our servers. But seeing that every day, when we get into the game it looks a little easier.”
First serve on Friday is set for 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.