Nebraska’s Kayla Caffey (right) and Nicklin Hames (1) attempt to block a Minnesota hit during the match against Minnesota at the Bob Devaney Center on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Coming off a series split against No. 9 Ohio State, the No. 5 Nebraska women’s volleyball enters this week two games out of the top Big Ten top spot. The top spot in the conference is still very much up for grabs as Nebraska prepares for what should be one of its easiest series of the season.

Nebraska plays 3-11 Iowa, the second-worst team in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are among the worst volleyball programs in the Big Ten, and have been for some time. But, in 2019, Iowa pushed then-No. 6 Nebraska to five sets. The Hawkeyes did end up falling 15-6 in the final set, but it was still a real accomplishment.

Iowa junior middle blocker Amiya Jones was flawless against Nebraska in 2019, hitting .476 with 10 kills and no errors in the upset bid. This season, Jones is Iowa’s most effective hitter at .319 but the Hawkeyes offense as a whole has struggled.

Jones returned to action Feb. 12 after an injury sidelined her for the first three weeks, but that still has not reversed Iowa’s offensive futility. The Hawkeyes average 12.02 kills per set, ninth in the Big Ten, and hit .172 as a collective unit. 

On the other side of the net, the Nebraska defense was shelled by No. 9 Ohio State for two straight nights, a deluge which culminated in a disappointed head coach John Cook, as his team faded away on Saturday. Ohio State hit .280 in its win.

Ohio State hit .222 in its Friday loss to Nebraska but the Huskers were still able to emerge victorious. Now, Nebraska goes against a significantly worse offense, but the defensive response should now be something to look for.

Besides Jones, Iowa’s 6-foot-5 junior outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio is the other main piece of the Hawkeye offense.

Buzzerio currently hits .195 but has turned herself into a much more capable hitter over the last few months. Buzzerio has hit at least .300 in five of her last six matches and is one of two primary setters for the Hawkeyes.

Buzzerio averages 4.51 assists per set and is one of the more unique players in the Big Ten. In the conference, teams often rely on just one setter, but Iowa uses two, with Buzzerio being both the lead hitter and a setter as well.

Nebraska’s quickest way to a win is by limiting Buzzerio’s impact as a passer, since her hitting numbers are subpar. If Buzzerio isn’t able to create opportunities for everyone else on the court, the Hawkeye offense will suffer as a result. 

Buzzerio hit .204 against Nebraska in 2019 and led all players with total swings during that match and had 20 assists to go along with that. 

Iowa has only taken three sets against Cook’s Nebraska teams, with two coming in that 2019 match. Like the 2019 team, Nebraska’s offense has been spotty at times and relied on a few players to break out of a rut or win sets through defense.

Nebraska’s match against Iowa is a chance to bring back the balanced offense that Cook envisioned at the beginning of the season. So far, the right-side hitter has made noticeable disappearing acts in multiple matches, mollifying the Nebraska attack.

The latest example of such was Saturday’s aforementioned loss against the Buckeyes, where senior outside hitter Jazz Sweet and sophomore outside hitter Riley Zuhn combined for six kills in the five set loss. 

Nebraska’s right side threat has to come back in order to boost some confidence for the offense. Iowa should be good practice and confidence for said right side, given the fact that the Hawkeyes have the third-worst defense in the Big Ten for hitting efficiency.

Nebraska’s offensive strength otherwise lies at the middle, where seniors Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey thrive, though Caffey struggled against Ohio State.

Nebraska relies, normally, on three players to make up the majority of its attack. Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun, sophomore outside hitter Madi Kubik and Stivrins make up the majority of all kills for the Huskers.

The three average about nine kills out of Nebraska’s 14 kills per set, and though that’s impressive in its own right, it’s not ideal for the Huskers. Iowa gives Nebraska a chance to break that dependence, due to the porous Hawkeye defense.

The Hawkeye defense ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in hitting, kills given up per set and blocks per set. Iowa is ranked 10th or lower in all three metrics and along with being the second most blocked Big Ten team at 2.96, Iowa’s margin of error for victory is pretty thin. 

Iowa’s defense will have to focus on one of the middle blockers at all times along with at least Sun and Kubik. That goes with Iowa not doing well with serving, ranking 10th in aces per set and opponent aces per set. 

The Huskers are better than the Hawkeyes by practically every metric but due to Nebraska’s record, it can’t afford to slip up against one of the Big Ten’s bottomfeeders.