By Lincoln Arneal
Nebraska’s defense was so good against Penn State it earned a standing ovation from John Cook.
After a long rally in the third set, Cook stood up and clapped his hands at the effort by his team. The Devaney Center crowd of 8,247 also rose to their feet in appreciation after a play that featured several diving saves and a scrambling defense. Libero Lexi Rodriguez walked back to the service line, soaked in the applause and mouthed, “I’m tired,” to the bench.
The effort paid off as the Huskers (15-1, 7-0) put on a defensive clinic against 14th-ranked Penn State in a 25-18, 25-22, 25-9 sweep Friday evening.
No. 3 NU finished with 16 blocks and 51 digs while limiting the Nittany Lions to a .017 hitting percentage, their lowest in at least the last 15 years. Cook credited assistant coach Jaylen Reyes with developing a game plan that took away a lot of the tendencies of the Penn State attackers and forced them into secondary shots.
“Penn State as a team doesn’t tip very much. Those guys swing,” Cook said. “I thought our block was really dialed in tonight.”
The Huskers set the tone in the first set with seven blocks, including five from senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord, who transferred from Penn State in the offseason. Leading 16-15, the Huskers took control with a 4-0 run that included two blocks by Hord and a pair of kills by Ally Batenhorst.
Hord said she wasn’t nervous facing many of her former teammates but getting the first block got her into the flow of the match.
“A stuffy always helps,” Hord said. “I tried to get rid of the emotion so that I wouldn’t be too high or too low. I think that definitely helped me play cooler and calmer.”
Hord tied a season-high with nine blocks in the match. Sophomore Whitney Lauenstein was her partner for many of those stuffs, as she finished with eight blocks.
One of the biggest victims was PSU outside hitter Kashauna Williams. They blocked her four times. She recorded kills for Penn State’s first two points of the match, but the rest of the way managed just three more and seven errors.
“Those two are super athletic and they work really well together,” Cook said about Hord and Lauenstein. “This isn’t the first time they’ve shut down left-side hitters this year. And yeah, but that’s a tough block to deal with.”
Freshman Bekka Allick added six blocks, while Madi Kubik and Linsday Krause chipped in on three each.
“I hope they were feeling the pressure because we were bringing it,” Allick said. “We were forcing them to hit shots they weren’t used to hitting. It looked like they felt the pressure.”
As a result of the Huskers’ imposing block, the Nittany Lions (14-4, 3-4) began tipping more in the second set and found more success in the second set before NU adjusted.
PSU trimmed NU’s lead to one twice at 13-12 and 21-20, but both times the Huskers responded. Kubik answered with a kill and block next to Allick the first time. Then, Hord and Lauenstein teamed up for a block to give the Huskers more breathing room down the stretch. Finally, Kubik sealed the set with a kill.
In the third set, Nebraska exerted its will over the Nittany Lions. The Huskers scored the first three points and nine of the first 11 rallies. NU also finished strong and ended the match with a 10-1 run.
“We were all on the same page. Nothing felt rushed,” Allick said about the third set. “It was just here in the moment, just having fun and giving our best effort. It just felt smooth.”
Katie Clark led Penn State with seven kills. For the match, the Nittany Lions finished with 27 kills and 25 errors.
Behind NU’s block, Rodriguez led the effort with 16 digs. Senior Nicklin Hames added eight and Kenzie Knuckles chipped in seven.
Hord said having a back-row that routinely makes difficult plays looks easy gives them more confidence at the net with their block and on offense.
“If something doesn’t go the way that you’re hoping, they got your back,” she said.
On offense, NU hit .333 in the set to finish with a .208 hitting percentage for the match. Kubik paced the Huskers with nine kills, while Lauenstein added seven and Allick recorded six at a .385 clip.
On offense, the big story was the return of Hames, who missed the previous seven matches with a back injury. She finished with 20 assists, while junior Anni Evans recorded six. Cook said he was surprised by the uneven distribution of the offense, but the rotations where Hames was in resulted in more points.
“She’s been looking really strong in practice just because he’s just been working on strengthening up her core,” Cook said. “She got a little gassed tonight just because a lot of adrenaline was going, and the crowd and we had a couple of long rallies.”
The Huskers are back in action Sunday at 2 p.m. as they host Northwestern, which got swept by Maryland on Friday night.