Three takes from Nebraska volleyball's defensive sweep over Michigan St.
After hitting .462 in a sweep over Michigan on Friday, No. 12 Husker volleyball's defense was tested against Michigan State. Nebraska's defense helped them to sweep the Spartans 25-16, 25-19 and 25-20.
NU's offense shined with only four hitting errors versus the Wolverines. On Sunday, Nebraska's defense made good save after good save behind a strong service attack to wear down Michigan State.
Here are my three takes from this defensive battle:
Head coach John Cook said one of Nebraska's goals against Michigan State was to get into long rallies. The longer the rally, the more likely NU will get the point, he said.
The Huskers accomplished that goal by giving up 30 kills on 114 swings. The Spartans hit .079 on the match and .024 in the first set.
Nebraska had 60 digs led by libero Lexi Rodriguez, who had 17 digs. Rodriguez had the most digs since the Creighton match on Sept. 8 when she also had 17. In the first set, she had eight digs, which was the total number she had against Michigan on Friday.
Cook said Rodriguez was a key part of lengthening the rallies. He said she has taken a huge jump from week 1 of conference play to week 2.
Defensive specialist Keonilei Akana was another key to Nebraska's defense with 10 digs, Cook said.
Setter Nicklin Hames laid out to dig a kill by Michigan State's Naya Gros which shanked over to Rodriguez who dropped to her knees to get the ball up. The Spartans sent the ball back over and Hames set outside hitter Lindsay Krause who destroyed the ball for a kill in the second set. Just one example of the Huskers' defensive efforts.
Hames finished with nine digs and 31 assists on the match.
This weekend, NU had a game where its offense was the star followed by a defensive performance to prove they can win matches either way.
The Huskers' serving dominated in both matches this weekend. Against Michigan on Friday, they had nine aces with five coming from Hames.
Michigan State also struggled to return Nebraska's serves. Defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles had two aces but the Spartans battled to get a good first pass off her serve the entire match.
Outside hitter Madi Kubik said they call Knuckles "K-Thump" because of her great serve.
Akana led a 6-0 run in the first set from behind the service line. She had one ace and Michigan State was forced out-of-system on almost all of her serves.
Cook called Akana Nebraska's best server.
"Keonilei, right now statistically in point scoring, has done the best job and you can see why," Cook said. "She makes runs and if you can make runs, you have a chance to win games."
In a conference like the Big Ten, which has the best top to bottom competition in the country, serving is going to be crucial for Nebraska to put pressure on their opponents.
Shutting down one of Big Ten's best hitters
Michigan State's Sarah Franklin averaged 5.80 kills per set, the most in the Big Ten, before Sunday's match.
On Friday against Iowa, she had 20 kills and hit .375. Nebraska held her to five kills, six errors and a -.029 clip, her lowest hitting percentage of the season.
Nebraska shut down Franklin by not allowing her to hit up the middle from the front and back rows, which is her best shot, Cook said. The Huskers also put pressure on her by sending tough serves her way.
Middle blocker Kayla Caffey, who had six kills, two solo blocks and two block assists, said the Huskers were going up big with their "Big Girl Block," as they call it.
Nebraska has only dropped one set to conference opponents this season, making them 12-1 in sets. Cook said those matches matter more than people realize because of how well each team is playing.
For example, Northwestern took Illinois to five sets and had four set points with No. 7 Minnesota.
Up next, Nebraska travels to No. 14 Penn State (9-3) on Friday and Rutgers on Sunday. Both will be huge tests for this vastly improved team.
With Lauren Stivrins back, Hames getting the offense into a rhythm and the defense firing on all cylinders, the Huskers look completely different than they did during the non-conference matches.
This looks like a team that could do some damage in the Big Ten if they can continue to improve at the same rate.