There aren’t many sighs of relief coming from a team that has won 18 straight matches, but the closest thing No. 2 Penn State might have had to that exhale came after it clinched the Big Ten championship by sweeping Ohio State on Wednesday night.
The win meant the Nittany Lions’ 10th conference crown in 11 years would not come down to Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. match at No. 10 Nebraska, the only meeting of the year between the Big Ten’s top clubs.
“It would’ve been much harder to win that match,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said Friday. “That match with Nebraska now has different significance because it’s against a great opponent in a newly renovated venue with a great crowd. You can’t ask for much more going into the NCAA tournament than that.”
Saturday’s match at Devaney Center, which will be televised on the Big Ten Network, now holds no implications on the league standings — NU also has clinched sole possession of second place. However, the meeting gives both teams one final, stiff test before the NCAA tournament begins next weekend.
For Nebraska (24-5, 16-3 Big Ten), the match is a chance to end the regular season on a high note after some recent struggles. The Huskers bounced back from a three-set loss last Friday at Purdue with sweeps at Indiana and Iowa. But the victories against two teams at the bottom of the league standings still left much to be desired for Nebraska coach John Cook.
The Huskers’ offense has been out of sync recently, and Penn State, which leads the Big Ten in opponents’ attack percentage (.129) and blocks (3.09 per set), is hardly the team to get well against.
“To play a team like Penn State before you go into the tournament, we’re going to improve from that match,” Cook said. “We’re going to learn what it’s going to take.”
While Nebraska’s success was somewhat unforeseen — the Huskers were picked to finish fourth in the preseason Big Ten coaches poll — the Nittany Lions (27-2, 18-1) have clicked along at expected levels of dominance. They dropped their first Big Ten match of the year to Michigan State at home Sept. 27, but haven’t lost since.
Penn State returned four first-team All-Big Ten players in outside hitters Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott, middle blocker Katie Slay and setter Micha Hancock. But Rose said this year’s Nittany Lions may be even deeper than last year’s club, which lost to the Huskers in five games at NU Coliseum.
Junior outside hitter Nia Grant leads the Big Ten with a .411 attack percentage in conference play, and Megan Courtney, last season’s Big Ten freshman of the year, has evolved into a player who can carry the attack if McClendon or Scott struggle. Her 2.46 kills per set are third on the team.
“She’s one of the people that when she plays well, it really buoys our team,” Rose said. “She was freshman of the year last year in the conference. She’s had some matches this year when she’s been our best offensive player and then some matches where she looks like she’s had the proverbial sophomore slump.”
Rose said this year’s club might not match the talent level of the turn-of-the-decade Penn State squads that won four straight national titles, but falling short of that bar is hardly an indictment. This year’s Nittany Lions also lead the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.315) while ranking second in kills and aces.
The conference title is no longer on the line Saturday, but a top-10 matchup on Nebraska’s Senior Day that could be a preview of a regional final or Final Four has high enough stakes.
“Hopefully our fans will burn off that turkey cheering loud,” Cook said.