Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird wished his team passed to middle blocker Jada Gardner more during Saturday's four-set loss to then-No. 8 Wisconsin.
Gardner, who is rarely the focal point of the offense, notched three kills on four attempts. Maryland's dependency on usual sources of production allowed the Badgers to key in on its pin hitters, whereas a more balanced attack would have given Wisconsin's frontline players pause before setting up to block. The Badgers finished the match with 11 rejections.
Maryland plays No. 6 Nebraska on Wednesday, its fourth-straight ranked opponent and third consecutive top-10 foe. To stand any chance at Devaney Center, a location where the Cornhuskers have dropped just five sets this season, the Terps will aim to spread out their attack.
Gardner said if middle blockers aren't included in the attack enough, opposing blockers have fewer options to worry about. But by involving those players in the attack, teams stay in position longer, potentially freeing the Terps' outside and opposite hitters to favorable one-on-one attacks.
"I don't know what their game plan is against us, we'll know early in the match and then we can make some adjustments," Aird said. "But I think setting the middle is always an important part of every offense."
Nebraska holds opponents to a .157 hitting percentage, the lowest clip in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers have also limited teams to the fewest kills and assists in the conference. Aird said Nebraska is fundamentally sound and it plays an efficient style.
While Aird agreed spreading out the attack will make it harder to predict for Nebraska's blockers, he also emphasized the Terps' first pass against the Cornhuskers' serving.
Libero Kelsey Wicinski is set to miss her ninth match in a row with an upper body injury suffered in the week prior to Maryland's Oct. 13 win over Northwestern. That leaves three freshmen and a sophomore as the primary serve receivers for Maryland.
If the Terps can reliably move the ball to the setter, Gardner said there's a focus on beating the opposing blocker in the air, freeing up potential shooting lanes. In-game communication with the setter to synchronize where the ball should be placed is also key.
"They always tell me to be fast, so I just keep working to be fast, in the air faster," Gardner said. "I know they're trying to get the outsides and the right sides to be faster, too."
But amid Maryland's run of four top-10 teams in two weeks, which included losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota last week and closes with a meeting against No. 1 Penn State on Saturday, Gardner isn't overwhelmed by the thought of playing the reigning Big Ten champions in front of its nation-leading average of 8,223 fans per game.
Aird said he loves the challenge of a match like this, but is realistic about Maryland's chances at an upset.
"I've always seen [Devaney Center] on TV, and now I'm going to see it in person," Gardner said. "So, I'm really excited about that."