Jazz Sweet and Lauren Stivrins block against Wichita State

Jazz Sweet (12) and Lauren Stivrins (26) work to block a hit during a game against Wichita State at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Huskers finally finished their non-conference schedule and now begin the season’s second half: conference play. Nebraska begins conference play this weekend with a road trip to the state of Illinois where they will face both Illinois and Northwestern.

Nebraska starts conference play against No. 19 Illinois. The Fighting Illini have had a tough start to their season, going 5-4 in non-conference play.

Illinois’ record does not accurately reflect the quality of the Fighting Illini. Illinois senior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade is statistically one of the best outside hitters in the Big Ten. She has 181 kills, an average of 4.64 kills per set and will once again be the main focus of Nebraska’s defense on Friday, Sept. 27.

Last year, the two teams played each other three times. The two schools both won on the road during the regular season and met again in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. In the semifinals, the Huskers were down 2-0, but mounted a comeback and won 3-2.

Quade was a force that night with 28 kills on 76 attack attempts. Quade’s usage will be the same this time around. Unlike last year’s match, Nebraska cannot find itself in the same hole again.

The Huskers’ defense has played lights out as usual, but has not experienced a hostile Big Ten crowd this season. Though Illinois’ offense is not as good as last year, playing at home is an advantage for the Fighting Illini. The Fighting Illini’s offense can use Quade and junior outside hitter Megan Cooney to disrupt the defense.

The two outside hitters do not hit as effectively as senior middle blocker Ashlyn Fleming. Fleming hits .359 and can be the spark for Illinois’ offense as Nebraska’s defense can shut down outside hitters, but struggles at times with attacks from middle blockers.

Nebraska’s middle blockers can be the difference between a potential easy win or a grueling four- or five-set match. In Nebraska’s regular season win against Illinois last year, sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach had nine kills on a .818 clip while junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had eight kills. When Nebraska lost to Illinois, the two only combined for nine kills and hit below .300.

If Stivrins and Schwarzenbach both play well offensively, the Husker offense becomes much better which makes the outside hitters hit better. 

Junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet hits left-handed and her attacks provide a new wrinkle to Nebraska’s offense. Sweet is at her best when the middle blockers play good offense as seen in the two Illinois wins. Sweet had 17 kills in the two wins and hit a combined .272. The loss saw Sweet hit .000 and with the middle blockers struggling, Nebraska’s offense faltered.

After Nebraska’s match in Champaign, Illinois, the Huskers take a quick trip up to Evanston, Illinois the next day to take on Northwestern. The Wildcats are 9-3 to start the season but have played a relatively easy non-conference schedule with no ranked teams or teams receiving votes on their schedule.

Despite an easier opponent on Saturday, these are Nebraska’s first back-to-back matches on consecutive days when the Huskers travel on both days. The match is a good test for how Nebraska fares after a tough match and this time, the next match is the day after.

After Nebraska’s loss against Stanford, the Huskers had a slow start against Wichita State that forced Cook to call an early timeout. Nebraska swept the Shockers but the slow start happened three days after a tough match which may have played a part.

This time, Nebraska plays Northwestern less than 24 hours after Illinois. The players also travel in those 24 hours and an emotionally exhausting match means Nebraska could be sluggish early on. This is a time where Nebraska’s depth becomes more important and will show how far the depth has progressed.

Sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis, freshman middle blocker Riley Zuhn and freshman setter Nicole Drewnick have all played sporadically this season. Davis is the strongest player among them as her hitting abilities will be much-needed for when the three usual outside hitters have to come out of the game.

Zuhn is the most intriguing of the three as she has proven to be a very capable middle blocker in her limited play time. Her defense is that of a typical Nebraska middle blocker, but her offense has been a struggle. Zuhn’s offense is going to be more important than her defense as the Husker offense has not found its spot.

Overall, the test of Nebraska’s depth is going to be more important than how the starters play on Saturday. The Huskers cannot afford to run their starters every set while only subbing in depth as they will be fatigued.

Nebraska plays Illinois on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. Then, the Huskers play at Northwestern on Sept. 28 at 7 p.m.