Sunday’s match between Nebraska and Michigan was supposed to be a match between top offenses and defenses in the Big Ten. However, only Nebraska showed up as it swept the Wolverines through the return of its vaunted “blackshorts” defense.
“I don’t think they feel great about how they played against Wisconsin and they took ownership of it,” Nebraska head coach John Cook said. “You can always play defense… so they did a great job of coming back from last weekend to put on a really great defensive effort.”
No. 5 Nebraska swept Michigan 25-22, 25-21, 25-14 behind great defense. The win propels the Huskers back into the race for the conference title.
The defense took a couple of points to get into the game but when it got rolling, Michigan struggled mightily. The Wolverines jumped to a 7-2 lead in the first set before the Huskers fought back.
The gritty first set was a battle of the top defenses in the Big Ten and both schools were hitting below .000 at points throughout the first set. Nebraska took a 13-12 lead, but Michigan roared back to take a 17-13 advantage.
One Cook timeout later and the Huskers were back in the match. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had two aces and her serves forced Michigan to play out of system. The Wolverines could not respond back and tied at 18, Nebraska went on a 7-3 run to end the set. The second half of the first set was the Huskers’ defense stepping up and taking over.
“My mentality was that we need to get back in the game as soon as possible and I know that it starts with the serve,” Knuckles said. “It just gave us a little bit of momentum.”
Michigan outside hitter Paige Jones was locked down in the first set. Jones came in as one of the most efficient outside hitters in the conference, yet hit an astonishing -.167 in the first set with one kill. The lowly performance was a part of an overall theme of the first set: offensive struggles.
Both schools struggled on offense, but Nebraska turned its performance around. The Huskers ended up in the positive while Michigan finished below .000. The match was tight into the 20s but Nebraska won the biggest part of the set.
“Today, our goal was when it gets to the 20s, it’s time to turn it on,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “We haven’t been doing that in the past matches so that was definitely our goal today.”
Unlike it did against Wisconsin, Nebraska made the necessary plays to win the final points of the first sets behind two consecutive kills from Sun. Sun had four kills in the first set and continued her great performance into the second.
Sun had 12 kills and hit .400 throughout the entire match, but her best offensive set was the second, where she had six kills. In a reversal of the first set, Nebraska jumped out to a quick lead and led by as much as seven.
Nebraska led 16-9 despite only four kills and that lack of offense bit the Huskers hard. Michigan made a great comeback to tie the set at 20 but that would be the Wolverines’ final burst of offense.
Tied at 20, Sun took over for Nebraska with three kills and the set-ending block. Those three kills were what Nebraska needed, as it had struggled to end sets at 25 throughout the season. Now, the Huskers had won both sets and there was no need for any clutch plays in the third set.
Michigan’s offense was struggling in all areas and had 16 kills with 16 attack errors. The Wolverine offense had played a lackluster schedule and their inexperience against tougher team showed.
The dam was busted in the third set when both Nebraska’s offense and defense dominated. The Huskers hit .609 in the third set and their middle blockers controlled the net throughout the set.
Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had six kills and sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach added two more. More importantly, both hit over .700 and were instrumental in the bigger highlight of the set.
Nebraska’s middle blockers had struggled in a coupe of sets defensively but neutralized Michigan freshmen May Pertofsky and Kayla Bair. Without those two valuable options, the Wolverine offense cratered and those one-on-one opportunities Michigan had wanted became its worst nightmare.
“The teammates get excited when people get solo blocks,” Sun said. “It’s fun and gets some momentum going.”
The Huskers had five solo blocks in the third set, two from freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik and three from Sun. The solo blocks were the icing on the cake for a dominant Nebraska defense performance.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had only two digs, a great sign for the Huskers offense and defense. With her not digging, Hames got the Huskers in system more and led to easier plays for Nebraska.
Nebraska’s dominance was a part of a great weekend for the team. The Huskers dropped the first set on Friday before going on a current six-set winning streak and any questions about the defense were answered swiftly.
“Our goal was just to play Nebraska volleyball,” Knuckles said. “We did a great job.”
Nebraska finishes its home stretch with a match against No. 20 Purdue on Wednesday at 8 p.m.