LINCOLN — Four weeks of Big Ten play have given Nebraska volleyball opponents ample time and game film to devise a plan to defeat the Huskers, who start five players seeing their first action in the league this season.
Purdue executed its game plan expertly to beat the Huskers on Saturday, and though Boilermakers coach Dave Shondell demurred when asked where he thought NU was vulnerable, Nebraska coach John Cook said Monday “it’s not rocket science” how teams will attack his club.
Cook said opposing defenses are keyed to slow Husker outside hitters Kelsey Robinson and Kadie Rolfzen, who have combined for nearly half of Nebraska’s attacks on the season.
That approach requires patience, but Purdue’s blockers didn’t let Robinson and Rolfzen’s hot start faze them. After combining for 15 kills without an error in the first two sets Saturday, both players had their struggles in the second half of the match.
Rolfzen had zero kills and three errors in the third set while Robinson had three errors against two kills in the fourth as No. 13 Nebraska (13-4, 6-2 Big Ten) fell at home for the first time since moving to the Devaney Center.
That makes the diversity Cook has been stressing all the more important if the Huskers are going to remain in the hunt for the Big Ten championship starting with Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. match with Iowa (10-10, 1-7) at the Devaney Center in a match live on the Big Ten Network.
Nebraska is tied for second place in the league with Minnesota and Michigan State. No. 2 Penn State leads the Big Ten at 7-1.
To weather off-nights from its outside hitters, Nebraska must get more offensive production from opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen and middle blockers Meghan Haggerty and Cecilia Hall to make opposing teams pay for sending two blockers to Nebraska’s left side.
“If Amber has big nights, and our middles can have big nights, we’re really good,” Cook said.
Amber Rolfzen had a strong showing against Purdue with 13 kills and a .300 hitting mark after missing NU’s previous match with a muscle pull. Nebraska’s middles produced solid, if unspectacular, results versus the Boilermakers, hitting a combined .222 with 12 kills.
“Teams scout us really well,” Amber Rolfzen said. “They know our tendencies. They know what we can do to win. I think we can just make better plays, keep trusting our abilities and just keep going after it.”
Robinson said Purdue’s success attacking Saturday — the Boilermakers’ .309 attack percentage was the highest against Nebraska all year — showed a well-scouted plan against the Huskers’ defense. The Boilermakers identified vulnerable spots in NU’s floor defense and kept Nebraska from seizing momentum with long strings of points.
“When you constantly side out, but can’t get anything going in transition or shut a team down, it’s hard to get things going on your side of the court,” Robinson said.
Facing an Iowa team that had lost eight straight matches before a five-set win against last-place Indiana on Saturday figures to give Nebraska the chance to work on the deficiencies exposed by Purdue. The Hawkeyes rank last in the Big Ten in kills (11.07 per set) and next-to-last in hitting percentage (.167).
Since Iowa is Nebraska’s conference travel partner, the Huskers will play their second match of the week on the road at No. 24 Ohio State on Friday to end the first half of the Big Ten schedule.
The race for the league title figures to be very much unsettled at the halfway mark, but to keep pace with the conference’s other leaders, Nebraska is going to have to find a way to win matches even if its top options aren’t firing on all cylinders.
“It’s a big week for us,” Cook said. “We’ve got to find a way to win two matches this week and stay in the top of the conference and have a chance to compete for a championship the second half of the conference (schedule).”