LINCOLN — In Nebraska’s last four matches, the Huskers have played six sets decided by three points or fewer. The Huskers have lost five of them.
To coach John Cook, the Huskers’ recent inability to win close sets might be the biggest indicator of the gap between where the team is now and where it wants to be.
“You’ve got to make plays when it’s on the line,” Cook said. “That’s part of our inexperience a little bit, and we’re trying to figure out how to win those. But we’ve got to start learning how to win those because we’re going to be in a lot of them.”
Cook is still tweaking the lineup for No. 9 Nebraska (16-5, 7-4 Big Ten), trying to find the right mix of roles as the Huskers continue a stretch of elite opponents at 7 p.m. Saturday when Nebraska hosts No. 6 Illinois (19-3, 8-3). The Fighting Illini, who sit third in the conference standings, will be the fourth opponent in Nebraska’s last five matches to be ranked in the top 10.
The match, televised on BTN, is a rematch of the Huskers’ 3-1 win in Champaign on Sept. 29. The loss to Nebraska started a run of three defeats in four matches for the Illini, coached by former NU assistant Chris Tamas. But since then, Illinois has reeled off four straight wins, including a 3-1 win at No. 7 Wisconsin on Oct. 13.
In search of his best lineup, Cook has alternated roles for outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Lexi Sun, changing which player starts in the L1 position and the L2 spot. When the Huskers begin a set in Rotation 1, which they normally do, the L2 player starts in the back row and gets more opportunities to serve. The L1 starts in the front row and usually gets more attacking swings sooner.
In Wednesday’s win at Ohio State, Foecke played L1 while Sun played L2. Cook said in NU’s first 10 Big Ten matches, Foecke and Sun have spent five contests in each spot, providing a significant amount of data for him to judge Nebraska’s best look depending on a number of factors.
“One is passing,” he said. “Two is back-row attack. Three is who’s serving well. Those are three big things. We’re just trying to figure out what is our best lineup.”
The Huskers’ last two matches have also featured the return of defensive specialist Megan Miller. The freshman from Alexandria, Indiana, played in just two sets over a month before being used as a serving substitute at Minnesota, replacing middle blocker Lauren Stivrins.
On Wednesday at Ohio State, Miller served two aces.
“She passed really well at Ohio State, so we put her in,” Cook said. “She was one of our best passers. She served really well at (Minnesota). She served well again at Ohio State and passed great.”
In Nebraska’s first match with Illinois, the Huskers won the in-system battle. NU hit .271 led by Foecke’s 13 kills, and five Huskers had at least eight kills. That balance offset Illini outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, who had a match-high 22 kills.
But NU outblocked Illinois 14-7 and served eight aces compared with Illinois’ two, winning three sets by at least six points. Nebraska freshman Callie Schwarzenbach had a career-high nine kills and eight blocks.
“We ran middle,” Cook said, highlighting Nebraska successes in the first meeting. “We shut down (Illinois outside hitter Megan) Cooney. We shut down (middle blocker Ali) Bastianelli pretty much.
“We just played good, solid volleyball and made plays, and didn’t give up big streaks of points.”
Illinois at Nebraska
When: 6:30 p.m.
Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM