Nebraska’s domination against both Michigan schools since joining the Big Ten can only rival the domination of Tom Osborne’s Huskers against the state of Kansas in the Big Eight. Nebraska is 36-5-1 against both Michigan and Michigan State and has never lost to either school at home.
Nebraska first plays against Michigan State on Friday, Oct. 11 at home. The Spartans enter with a 2-2 record in Big Ten play and are on their fourth conference road game.
Michigan State’s offense has had an average start to conference play and gives a perfect chance for Nebraska’s vaunted defense to bounce back from its most recent loss. The Husker defense was dominated by Wisconsin last week.
Nebraska’s defensive turnaround begins with its middle blockers. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins have had a noticeable dip in defensive performance so far in conference play. Middle blockers from both Wisconsin and Illinois hit over .500, and the Spartans can also cause some damage up front.
Sophomore middle blocker Rebecka Poljan is one of the Big Ten’s better middle blockers and gives the Spartans a good offensive boost. Both Stivrins and Schwarzenbach will have to limit her chances and not give her good looks. In a match against Maryland, Poljan’s performance suffered and so did the Spartans’ offense.
The Huskers’ defense can return to ‘blackshorts’ form with solid performances in blocking and defending serves. In its last match, Nebraska struggled against the Badgers’ serves.
This happened because of bad defensive positioning, which led to free balls for Wisconsin. Free balls happened when Nebraska had to send the ball back to Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to play their designed offense more often than Nebraska.
The match against the Spartans is an important test to see how well the Huskers cleaned up some of their errors on defense and serving. Serving errors can kill rhythm of how a team is playing and hurts the offense just as much.
Nebraska’s offense has played well to start the season and will play another tough defense. The Huskers’ offensive play on Friday is more important to show if the hot start is a fluke or if the inconsistencies are gone.
On Sunday, the Huskers square off against the Wolverines at home for a battle between the two best Big Ten offenses, which is an important match for conference standings.
The Wolverines are led by sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones, one of the premier outside hitters in the Big Ten. Jones is hitting .444 and averages over five kills per set, marking her as the conference’s most efficient outside hitter.
No other Wolverines are in the conference’s top-10 for hitting, yet the Wolverines have a top offense. Senior setter MacKenzi Welsh is another strong player as she has over 12 assists per set — second best in the conference. What’s even more impressive is that Welsh is putting up these numbers with two freshmen in most of the rotations.
Nebraska’s offense is second in the Big Ten by just a hair. Stivrins is the most efficient hitter in the conference and junior outside hitters Jazz Sweet and Lexi Sun have played like top outside hitters as well.
For all great offensive matchups, the big question is how do the defenses slow down the other offense?
The Wolverines’ defense has played lights out to start conference play as they have swept each opponent. Those conference foes only have two wins in Big Ten play, and Nebraska is a different beast.
Michigan’s way to slow down Nebraska comes through its serving. Serving can get Nebraska out of system right away and potentially give Michigan a much easier offensive possession. The Wolverines are one of the best serving teams in the Big Ten and Nebraska has struggled to play the serve well.
For Nebraska, countering Michigan’s serve is just as important and countering those serves can pay off. Nebraska can play its style of offense right away and use its experience against a young Michigan team.
The Wolverine front line includes freshmen Jess Robinson and May Pertofsky, both middle blockers. Stivrins can control the net and Schwarzenbach can rebound back from her poor recent offensive performances, which makes the duo’s performance all the more important.
Jones is Michigan’s best offensive player, her presence alone gives Michigan a chance at beating Nebraska for the first time in five years. Jones requires at least two Huskers on her, but the Wolverines can only pick one outside hitter to double team.
If Nebraska’s offense takes advantage of these one-on-one opportunities, the match can be a quick one, but the Husker defense still has to play the way Cook stresses.
This match has more implications for Michigan than Nebraska. For Michigan, it is a chance to become a contender in the Big Ten. If Nebraska wins, it would be back in the hunt for a conference title and add yet another resume-building win.
Nebraska plays Michigan State this Friday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network and Michigan Sunday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m on ESPN2.