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Three takes from Nebraska volleyball handing Illinois its first sweep

No one saw this coming.

After losing three consecutive games to ranked opponents in the preseason, head coach John Cook and Nebraska fans were worried about the Huskers' future in a very difficult Big Ten Conference.

After sweeping Illinois on Saturday, Nebraska's sixth sweep in conference play, the Huskers remain the only undefeated team in the conference.

This Nebraska team looks nothing like it did in the preseason matches.

Here are my three takes from the Huskers' much-improved squad and its victory over Illinois:

Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook
Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook (Abby Barmore)

Kubik kills balls

Left-side outside hitter Madi Kubik has had an explosive Big Ten run as Nebraska's go-to hitter. Against Illinois, Kubik tied her career-high 19 kills for the third time this season. She hit a career-high .457 hitting percentage with three errors on 35 swings.

Cook said Kubik is doing what is asked of her and expected of her.

"She executed it most of the time and found a lot of success," Cook said. "I think she played really consistently at a high level tonight. We expect that from Madi and she's capable of it."

Cook and Kubik both credited setter Nicklin Hames with some great sets to make Kubik's job easier.

The 6-foot-3 junior said when she is in the zone like she was against Illinois, she feels "invincible." And she credited that to the trust she has built with her teammates.

"We know we have each other's backs and we'll be there every time and there's so much freedom in that," Kubik said.

Kubik also had one of Nebraska's three service aces and six digs.

"She killed it," said libero Lexi Rodriguez, who had 17 digs against the Fighting Illini, of Kubik's performance.

That can be taken literally and figuratively.

Illinois's first sweep

In true Big Ten volleyball fashion, Illinois conference record, now 4-4, does not reflect the team's quality or capabilities.

The Fighting Illini played Top-10 ranked Wisconsin and Purdue twice within a four-game span. They took Purdue to five sets in both matches and came out victorious once. Illinois won a total of two sets in its two games versus the Badgers.

And Nebraska handled them efficiently.

Illinois hit .100, its second-lowest percentage of the season. Outside hitter Raina Terry, who is averaging a .190 clip on the season, hit -.024 against Nebraska, her lowest of the season.

Cook said the key to beating Illinois was to make sure their servers like Taylor Kuper and Jessica Nunge didn't go on servicing runs. Before Saturday, the Fighting Illini averaged 1.91 aces per set, the most in the Big Ten.

Against the Huskers, they had one ace. That credit goes to the back-row defense. Hames had 10 digs and Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles each added six. Seven players had at least three digs and 10 players recorded a dig.

Having an extra layer of protection against big blocks, and there will be a lot in with this schedule, will help Nebraska tremendously.

The back-row attack

The Huskers put a huge emphasis on their back-row attack this season.

Cook said Nebraska's goal is to have a back-row threat during all six rotations because it opens up an offense and forces the opponent's middle blockers to account for a back-row attack.

Because of that present threat, it makes the blockers hesitate and slows them down, Cook said.

"Getting those rallies, you can't set the middle because they're scrambling, they're all over the place," Cook said. "You're not ball handling that well so that's why it's good to have that as an option."

Knuckles moved from libero to defensive specialist and can now hit balls from behind the 10-foot line. She had three kills on six swings against Illinois. Knuckles' kills always get a little more applause from the crowd.

Kubik also contributed two back-row kills by my count. On one, she pushed an off-speed ball over the net to give Nebraska an 8-6 lead at the beginning of a close second set.

The Huskers and Hames are determined to mix up their offense and keep their opponents guessing. Back-row attacks are a great way to do so.