LINCOLN — Here is what hasn't changed for the Nebraska volleyball team regarding Sunday's match with No. 1 Penn State.
The Huskers were going to need to defeat the Nittany Lions in the 2 p.m. meeting at the NU Coliseum to have a chance to repeat as Big Ten Conference champions even before Ohio State handed Nebraska a four-set loss Friday night to snap NU's nine-match winning streak.
But that startling defeat to the Buckeyes leaves No. 4 Nebraska (17-3, 9-2 Big Ten) with no margin for error if the Huskers want to keep pace with the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten title race. A loss to Penn State (21-1, 11-0) would put the Nittany Lions three games ahead of Nebraska with eight league matches to play.
“I don't think Penn State is going to feel sorry for us, so we better come ready to play,” Nebraska coach John Cook said following Friday's loss, his team's first regular-season loss in the Coliseum in 39 matches.
Certainly the Huskers will need to be more inspired than in the loss to Ohio State, when the Huskers seemed “out of it” and “did some bonehead things,” Cook said. Nebraska saw its six-match streak of hitting better than .300 end Friday, when NU was blocked 13 times, had 24 hitting errors and hit .225.
Playing its first match in five days, Nebraska lacked the aggressiveness and offensive rhythm it displayed in the first half of the conference season. The Huskers failed to disrupt Ohio State with their serving and could never seem to make the momentum-turning plays that would key a long run of points.
Cook seemed perplexed following the match as to how a team that looked to have been firing on all cylinders for the past two weeks could come out flat in front of its home crowd.
“We just didn't have much fight tonight,” he said.
Penn State isn't the ideal opponent to find your offense. The Nittany Lions have won 15 matches in a row and lead the Big Ten in blocks (3.0 per set) while holding opponents to a league-low .133 hitting percentage. Nebraska hit a season-low .209 in the teams' first meeting this season in State College — a 3-1 Penn State win in the conference opener on Sept. 19.
But the good news for Nebraska is this qualifies, without question, as a big match, and the Huskers traditionally rise to the occasion in big matches at the Coliseum.
Sunday's match will be the third time in the last two seasons NU has hosted a top-ranked opponent on its home floor. The first two left with a loss — Nebraska knocked off then-No. 1 Illinois in four sets last October and won a five-game thriller against UCLA on Aug. 25.
“It's great. It's what our fans want,” Cook said about hosting top-ranked opponents. “I think our players want that. It's what it's all about.”
The match will also mark the final chapter in a memorable history for Nebraska and Penn State at the Coliseum, as the Huskers will move to the Devaney Center next season. The Huskers have won on eight of the 10 occasions the two teams have played in the venue, which has produced some of the most memorable matches in the program's history.
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In 1982, Nebraska hosted Penn State in the Huskers' first-ever NCAA tournament match at the Coliseum and came away with a three-set sweep. Former NU coach Terry Pettit pointed to that match as perhaps the launching point for the program's current high level of popularity.
“That was a big event,” Pettit said last week. “People wanted to come to that. That was the first time we started to see non-volleyball people wanted to be at something, not just the hardcore volleyball crowd.”
The teams' match in the 1996 regional final has achieved legendary status among former players and coaches. No. 4 Nebraska and No. 3 Penn State split the first four sets before the Nittany Lions raced to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the fifth. But the Huskers rallied behind All-Americans Lisa Reitsma and Fiona Nepo and All-Big 12 middle blocker Megan Korver to pull out a 20-18 win in the finale to move on to the Final Four.
Pettit marked it as his favorite match at the Coliseum, which he claimed had never been louder or more magical than on that December night in 1996.
“I talked with (former Nebraska Athletic Director) Bill Byrne this summer,” Pettit said, “and he told me it was the greatest sporting event he'd ever seen.”
It was another five-setter at the Coliseum last season in Nebraska's first-ever match as a member of the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions evened the match at two sets apiece after NU had jumped to a 2-0 lead, but the Huskers regrouped to take Game 5 15-10.
The current Huskers may need some more of that magic Sunday to jump back into the Big Ten title picture and beat a Penn State lineup that includes All-America outside hitters Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon and All-America middle blocker Katie Slay.
But it's hard to imagine Nebraska will be short on inspiration. Historically, when the Nittany Lions come to town, that has never been a problem.
“There's going to be a different feeling because it's Penn State, and we get fired up,” Nebraska setter Lauren Cook said last week. “Everyone's excited.”
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