LINCOLN — When Nebraska and Wisconsin met for the first time on Sept. 30, Husker coach John Cook wondered after the first set if this was just going to be one of those nights.
The Badgers, then ranked No. 7, hit .389 in taking Game 1, silencing a Devaney Center crowd of 8,453 fans who were still riding high after watching NU sweep then-No. 3 Minnesota the night before. Wisconsin then turned the screws defensively in Game 2, holding the Huskers to .071 hitting, to head to the locker room with a 2-0 lead.
“They played really well the first two games,” Cook said. “I think we took a notch up, and they came a notch down, but they played really well the first two games. I mean, really good. We just had to weather the storm.”
It was the closest No. 4 Nebraska (13-3, 6-0 Big Ten) has come to defeat in its unbeaten Big Ten start. The Huskers eventually found the serving touch to keep the Badgers from having their way offensively and got 33 combined kills from outside hitters Annika Albrecht and Mikaela Foecke in a five-set comeback win.
In Wednesday’s 8 p.m. rematch at No. 11 Wisconsin (11-4, 2-4) televised on BTN, Nebraska will try not to wait so long before tilting the match to its strengths. When the Badgers were humming in the first two sets in Lincoln, Wisconsin steadily handled Husker serves, putting freshman setter Sydney Hilley in position to have all her attackers available.
When Wisconsin gave Hilley a perfect pass, it usually meant the set was headed to one of the Badgers’ two excellent middle blockers. All-Big Ten junior Tionna Williams and 6-foot-8 freshman Dana Rettke both are hitting better than .400 this season, and both ended the night with 11 kills.
“They ran a lot of middle, and the middle was killing us,” Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter said. “Obviously, when teams pass well, the middle is going to be where they probably go first. I think, for us, (the key is) just coming out strong, and serving tough, and kind of shutting down their middle attack, then working with the pins from there.”
Like the Huskers, Wisconsin thrives on balance, which requires excellent passing. Four Badgers average between 2.5 and 3.19 kills per set led by Rettke, who enrolled early during the winter and poses a unique challenge with her height.
“She’s (6-8), and she can move, and she’s got a great arm,” Cook said. “She’s got a really good setter setting her, and those guys have been together since January at Wisconsin. She’s a force. She’s going to be a force to deal with.”
Cook said Nebraska’s serving again will be key in the rematch. The Huskers rank 12th in the Big Ten in aces, which tells an incomplete story. Forcing an imperfect pass to put the Badgers out of system will lead to more predictable sets to the outside and into a waiting double block.
Nebraska’s league-low opponent attack percentage (.148) is evidence of how effective Husker servers have been, and once the Huskers started challenging Badger passers in the first meeting with a mix of driving jump-float serves and shallow offerings, Wisconsin hit .120 over the final three sets.
“I feel like we’ve got six good servers that can stress teams,” Cook said. “There’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s a server where it’s going to be an easy serve.’ Some of the teams we play, there’s some easy servers. But you want to have those passers thinking every serve that comes over is going to be a tough serve.”
Unlike the teams’ first meeting, when both the Huskers and Badgers had played the previous evening, Wednesday’s match means each team will have two days of practice to focus solely on each other. Second meetings in a season can turn into a battle of on-the-fly adjustments, and Cook hinted this is the time of year when NU starts to put new wrinkles into its game plan.
“You play a lot of teams twice,” he said, “so you’ve got to give them something different to think about.”
The loss in Lincoln was the start of Wisconsin’s current three-match losing streak. A fifth conference loss Wednesday night could all but end the Badgers’ Big Ten title hopes, so Hunter said she expects an atmosphere of urgency at the UW Fieldhouse, where Wisconsin draws 6,000 fans per match.
That hasn’t fazed the Huskers so far in Big Ten play. Nebraska has swept all three of its conference road matches.
“I think just mainly we need to come out really strong, especially being on the road,” Hunter said. “They’re going to be fired up at home. I think it’s just our side of the court that we’ve been really focusing on a lot this year for every team we’ve played.”
Nebraska at Wisconsin
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Madison, Wisconsin
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM