LINCOLN — Two days after its best offensive performance, Nebraska relied on its defense and serving for another sweep Sunday afternoon.
The 12th-ranked Huskers finished with a .250 hitting percentage, more than 200 points lower than their efficiency against Michigan, but limited Michigan State to a .079 hitting percentage for a 25-16, 25-19, 25-20 win at the Devaney Center.
While the big hitters took the spotlight on Friday, Nebraska’s back-row wizards took over the match against the Spartans.
Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez led the defense with 17 digs, while sophomore Keonilei Akana added 10 digs and an ace. Junior Kenzie Knuckles tallied seven digs and two aces.
“We wanted to get in rallies with them because I thought we could win most rallies, which we did,” NU coach John Cook said. “The longer those rallies went, the better chance we had to win them. Lexi Rodriguez was a big part of that. She was just getting everything up (along with) Kenzie Knuckles.”
Rodriguez started strong with eight digs in the first set. She was everywhere on the court, saving balls with one-armed digs. After Rodriguez made two such plays during a rally in the third set, Lindsay Krause slammed home a kill and then immediately pointed to Rodriguez, ran to her and picked up the 5-foot-5 libero in celebration.
“She's the leader of our defense, and she sets the tone,” said junior Madi Kubik, who led NU with 10 kills. “That's the Roddy we see every single day in practice, and I think that showed today.”
NU finished with just four aces but served tough and kept the Spartans (8-5, 1-3) out of system for a lot of the match, which led to their second-lowest hitting efficiency of the season.
The Huskers (10-3, 4-0) limited Michigan State’s Sarah Franklin to five kills, though she entered the match averaging just shy of four kills per set. The freshman outside hitter finished with six errors and hit -.029.
Cook said the goal was to serve Franklin tough immediately. Akana, who Kubik said the Huskers call "K-Thump” because of her serving prowess, aced Franklin in the first set to spark a 6-0 run for the Huskers. On defense, NU put up a block in the middle of the net to take away her best attack.
“I just think we got to her a little bit,” Cook said. “Right away, we put some serves on her and she shanked them, and so she just never got into a rhythm. Good serving helps make it harder to get in a good rhythm.”
Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey led the defense at the net with four blocks, including two solos. As a team, the Huskers recorded seven stuffs.
“I think we were just going up really big. We call it Big Girl Block,” Caffey said. “We were just making good moves on her and just reading the setter.”
In the second and third sets, Michigan State made NU work more for points and turned the match into a “slugfest,” Cook said. Senior Lexi Sun played the third set and tallied three kills on just five attacks. Krause finished with nine kills and a .304 hitting percentage. Senior setter Nicklin Hames finished with 31 assists and nine digs.
Lauren Stivrins backed up her impressive season debut with seven kills at a .333 clip and two blocks. Cook said she was pressing at times, but he was glad that she played two matches during the weekend after missing the first 11 recovering from back surgery.
“She got a little greedy on a few swings there,” he said. “I just told her to stay loose and relaxed because her adrenaline's pumping. Then she stayed loose and killed four or five balls in a row.”
After a pair of sweeps this weekend, the Huskers’ path gets tougher, as they will face off Friday against No. 14 Penn State, the only other team unbeaten in Big Ten play. Cook said the Huskers are an improved team from when they lost three straight matches versus ranked teams to close out the nonconference schedule.
“We're in more of a rhythm. We understand our roles,” Cook said. “Our freshmen are more comfortable. I think they know they can play in this conference now. It's gonna be a great test.”