LINCOLN — Michigan State brought a stingy defense to Lincoln on Wednesday night. The Spartans ranked second in the Big Ten in opponents’ hitting percentage, with only Wisconsin better.
Still, after taking measure of the Spartans on video, Nebraska coach John Cook told his team before the match he thought the Huskers could out-scrap MSU on defense and best it at its own game.
“I thought we could play better defense than them overall and really put some pressure on them,” Cook said after the win. “We were well prepared and we followed the game plan.”
Cook’s prediction was correct. NU tied a season high on Wednesday with 11 blocks, four more than the taller Michigan State lineup, and would hold MSU to .147 hitting, 100 points below average.
“In that first set, we were getting good touches on the block and we were digging everything that they put our way, so it kind of frustrates them,” said Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who had four blocks on Wednesday night.
“I think we really did a good job of putting the pressure on them and not so much on us.”
Big Ten opponents have become used to the pressure of trying to score on No. 4 Nebraska (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten). The Huskers led the conference in opponents’ hitting percentage last season and finished third in 2015.
Again in 2017, defense has fueled the Huskers’ unbeaten start to Big Ten play. Going into Saturday’s 7 p.m. match at Iowa (13-5, 2-3), Nebraska is holding opponents to .174 hitting, just one point behind Wisconsin for the Big Ten lead.
Iowa, with the Big Ten’s third-lowest hitting percentage, wouldn’t appear to be a candidate to break the Huskers’ streak of holding each opponent this season below .250. But the Hawkeyes were hot Wednesday night in a 3-1 win over No. 22 Michigan in Iowa City, hitting .329 led by 17 kills each from Marquette transfer Taylor Louis and Jess Janota.
Nebraska is 25-0 all time against the Hawkeyes, winning the last 16 by sweep.
The Huskers’ miserly defense warrants additional merit considering three of NU’s five Big Ten opponents this season rank in the top 13 in the country in attack percentage. Nebraska has held four of those five opponents at least 100 points below their season average efficiency.
It’s taken a holistic approach to maintain that effectiveness despite losing two of the team’s best defenders from a year ago in middle blocker Amber Rolfzen and libero Justine Wong-Orantes. The team’s blocking numbers are slightly down, dropping from 2.8 per set to 2.25.
But Nebraska has made it up by maintaining a tough run of servers that make it difficult for opposing passers to get the ball to their setter, then by keeping shots that do make it past the net off the floor. The Huskers are averaging a dig per game more than a year ago, and they lead the Big Ten with 15.83 digs per set in conference matches despite not having any one player in the league’s top 10 in digs.
Instead, the Huskers have relied on a balanced effort with several new players handling new responsibilities, showcased in the win over Michigan State. Five Huskers reached double figures in digs against the Spartans, led by 17 from junior libero Kenzie Maloney, one of three first-year starters playing in Nebraska’s back row.
Another new starter, senior defensive specialist Sydney Townsend, has double-digit digs in six matches this season, helping the Huskers stay competitive in some of their weaker offensive rotations.
Assistant coach Kayla Banwarth said most teams are happy to break even in rallies won during the three rotations when their setter is in the front row, when a team has one fewer front-row attacker. But she said Nebraska has won 37 more points than their opponents in rotations with Kelly Hunter playing in the front row, with large credit to Townsend’s serving, passing, and 2.29 digs per set.
“She’s balling out for us,” Banwarth said. “She’s a great passer. She’s digging everything.”
Nebraska at Iowa
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM