As is usually the case when Nebraska and Penn State get together, Saturday’s showdown between the two Big Ten rivals turned into a classic with the Huskers pulling out a win in five sets.
The Huskers have played in four five-set matches so far this season. They beat San Diego (26th in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll) in San Diego the first week of the season. Nebraska took down Illinois (now sitting at No. 21 in the poll) in five sets in Champaign in its first conference match. Nebraska stumbled for the first time, losing in five at Purdue (now at No. 15) on Oct. 26. The Huskers rebounded nicely to take down the Nittany Lions to secure their first top-10 win of the season.
“Both teams probably pushed each other to probably a new level for each team this year,” Cook said. “That’s what you get in the Big Ten, playing in these matches. Purdue pushed us, we didn’t respond. Purdue played great. I watched them yesterday and they didn’t play anywhere near as well as they did against us, for example.The point is that’s what this conference does: it pushes you to be really great if you want to be successful.”
Cook said he wasn’t sure if the Huskers would have won that match had they played back in September. Through four sets, the point totals were even. Somehow, Nebraska found a way to be two points better in the fifth.
“I think we killed more balls than they did,” Cook said. “I think we were plus-10 in how many balls we killed and a lot of those were in long rallies. That was probably the overall theme, difference I think. We did a nice job of getting a couple blocks — they got some blocks too, but we made a couple critical stops in game five.”
The Huskers also held the Nittany Lions to .166 hitting, their lowest percentage in Big Ten play and third-lowest of the season. Through 12 Big Ten contests, the Huskers are first in the league in opponent hitting percentage by a healthy margin at .148. Wisconsin is second at .168 and Minnesota is third at .181. The Huskers have done it with two true freshmen in the lineup including one at libero.
“I think it’s really impressive that we are [first], but we work really hard at it and we instill that in our players and they’ve done a great job of executing the game plans,” Cook said. “Jaylen [Reyes] does a great job of preparing them. So we work hard at it. That’s our goal every year is to be the best defensive team, because if you’re that, you’ve got a shot.”
Knuckles led the defensive effort against the Nittany Lions with a career-high 24 digs after recording 16 digs in three sets against Rutgers on Friday. She was named co-Defensive Player of the Week by the Big Ten on Monday.
“I think she’s grown into her role and I think she’s getting more confident,” Cook said. “I think she’s getting a feel and understanding how to be a great libero. I told her afterward she out-dug Kendall White by seven digs or eight digs, and that’s pretty good. But she’s got work to do and she still works hard. I think she’s just getting more and more comfortable at the libero position and playing at this level.”
White is Penn State’s senior All-American libero who, like Knuckles, is an Indiana native. They both played for the same club program, Munciana, and Cook said Knuckles probably grew up watching White play. White had 17 digs as Nebraska hit .210 in that match.
Knuckles struggled from the service line early on, recording 22 errors and just five aces in her first 13 matches. Over the last seven, however, she has eight aces and just four errors.
“She’s more confident, and that’s one area that you see it is serving, more confidence,” Cook said. “Early in the year she was just hoping that the ball would stay in the court.”
Nebraska will get a chance to improve upon that opponent hitting percentage even fourth as it draws two teams from the bottom of the Big Ten standings this week.
On Wednesday, Nebraska will host Northwestern (10-14, 1-11 Big Ten). The Wildcats earned their first conference win last week with a home sweep of Michigan State. The Huskers swept Northwestern back on Sept. 28 while hitting .316. First serve is set for 8 p.m. on BTN.
On Saturday, the Huskers will travel to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes (9-14, 3-9) for the first time this season. Both Penn State and Rutgers swept Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last weekend. That match is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. on BTN+.
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.