By Lincoln Arneal
The statistics still say Nebraska has the No. 1 defense in the nation, but the margin is thinning.
The top-ranked Huskers are limiting their opponents to a .135 hitting percentage this season, the best in the country, slightly better than Creighton (.136) and three better than Pitt and Wisconsin, both at .138.
The cracks are beginning to show, however. NU allows offenses to hit more efficiently recently and side out at a higher rate. Penn State posted a .298 hitting percentage against the Huskers a week ago after terminating at .552 in the first set. Also, Rutgers hit .242 during two sets against the Huskers.
“We gotta get better,” NU coach John Cook said. “I want us to be better. That was a message this week.”
The Huskers host Illinois on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Devaney Center. The Illini (13-11, 8-6) are hitting .202 for the season, but only .185 in league play. Raina Terry averages 4.56 kills per set at a .198 clip. The senior outside hitter is also second in the Big Ten in points per game.
The floor defense has been solid, led by All-American libero Lexi Rodriguez and freshman defensive specialist Laney Choboy. Sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick is fourth in the Big Ten in blocks per set.
“We work on defense a lot,” Choboy said. “We’re always trying to improve and like we have the best defense in the country, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
While the end results are still favorable for Nebraska (24-0, 15-0), the underlying numbers are down. A year ago, the Huskers led the nation by allowing opponents to hit .128. The next best was Delaware State at .135.
This season, Big Ten teams are finishing at a .154 clip versus NU – the second-best in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin, which is limiting league opponents to a .116 hitting percentage.
While the Huskers ranked sixth in the Big Ten matches for blocks per set and 12th for digs, those might reflect a lack of opportunity instead of ability. NU’s more potent attack might cause teams to commit more unforced efforts.
Nebraska assistant coach Jaylen Reyes said the key to a better defense is getting more positive touches at the net. The Huskers don’t necessarily need to record blocks but touches to slow down attacks and let floor defense take over.
In addition, Reyes said NU needs to stay focused for an entire match and not give up easy points. Every Big Ten team, regardless of its record, has players who can terminate, but the Huskers need to force them to work harder for kills.
“They’re gonna get theirs, but it’s just there’s random freebies we give out through the games and sometimes they kind of come in little runs where it’s like three or four kills in a row that I’m like, ‘Is that really a kill on us guys?’”
Against Northwestern on Wednesday, Nebraska didn’t record a block until the penultimate point in the first set. NU added three in the second set before totaling 13 for the match.
Freshman middle blocker Andi Jackson said NU was moving around too much and almost pressing too hard to try to get touches. As a result, the line was left open, and the Wildcats took advantage.
“Towards the beginning of the match, we were super undisciplined,” she said. “We went out there and we just went away from our training. Then, in that third set, we came back and trusted our training and got a more disciplined block, including me, and I just had to go back to what I’ve learned and go back to the basics.”