Nebraska begins life in Big Ten with win
LINCOLN, Neb. -- So with all understandable lamenting about conference-switching in college athletics, it's also worth noting when positives come from it. On Wednesday night, as Nebraska Coliseum was so loud that people's ears were ringing, it was apparent what some of the good was in the Huskers' move to the Big Ten.
Of course, that leap from the Big 12 wasn't done for any other reason than more dinero, but still it's had an effect on this powerhouse volleyball program.
It's not as if the Huskers needed a big boost in popularity; they regularly pack their home gym. Yet after so many years of dominating the Big Eight and then the Big 12, the Huskers will be challenged in new ways in the Big Ten. And the Nebraska fans, who've been preparing for this, want to help the transition.
"The crowd never stopped the whole night," Nebraska coach John Cook said. "I can't remember the last time the Coliseum was this loud. The floor was shaking. What a great way to start the Big Ten."
Nebraska defeated four-time defending national champion Penn State 3-2, topping the Nittany Lions 15-10 in the decisive fifth game in which the Huskers' faithful practically rattled the roof off this old brick building.
"I have to give some credit to the crowd," said junior Gina Mancuso, who led Nebraska with 22 kills. "That was just amazing. I don't know if you can ever feel so special in another place other than Nebraska."
"Hrrrrmphhh!" might be the response to that by the Penn Staters, who feel that their Rec Hall is pretty awesome, too. They'll get a chance to show that to the Huskers on Oct. 29 at University Park, Pa., in the teams' regular-season rematch.
Although No. 5 Penn State has the last four NCAA trophies at home -- plus one from 1999 -- these Lions aren't ready to roar as loudly as this program has the past few seasons. They lost a ton to graduation, and even a superb recruiting class can't make up this quickly for so much experience gone.
At least that's what most coaches would say. And they would be right. But don't try to tell that to Penn State's Russ Rose, who was having none of it. Rose grimaced when asked if he was at least somewhat satisfied that his young group -- 13 of Penn State's 17 players are freshmen or sophomores -- had rallied from losing the first two sets to take the match the distance in enemy territory.
With Rose, sometimes a grimace actually is one of his happy faces. This time, it most certainly wasn't. The Nittany Lions are now 7-4 -- previous losses were to Oregon, Stanford and Texas -- and they have only just begun play in a conference that currently has seven ranked teams.
"I'm not angry with them as people, I'm angry about how they played as a team," Rose said of his squad, which lost the first two sets 25-18 and 25-16, then won the next two 25-23 and 25-19. "I think we played OK in the first game, didn't play especially well in the second, and really bad in the fifth game.
"If this was the first time this happens, maybe you say, 'Oh, they'll learn from that.' But this is the third time it's happened [this season]. So I'm not sure. If it happens every week, something has to change. Maybe they're getting better at it. It's a long season."
You get the feeling it was probably a long trip home with Rose. There's a reason he's won 1,040 matches in a Penn State career that began in 1979: He doesn't coddle even a team with this many youngsters on it.
Well, there's more to it than that. Rose is also an expert strategist, and he actually spent a couple of years at Nebraska in the late 1970s earning his master's degree and serving as an assistant coach. He wrote his thesis on volleyball statistics, and one can only imagine how impenetrable a read that might be to the average person.
Someone who would understand it, though, is another intense fellow, Nebraska's Cook. He had some big losses to graduation from last year's team, too. The 2010 Huskers fell in the NCAA Sweet 16 and didn't get to play in the Final Four in Kansas City, which still was flooded with Huskers red as many Nebraska fans came anyway.
What they saw in the Sprint Center last December was a Penn State team that was hitting on all cylinders for another title. This group of Nittany Lions isn't at that level now, but they still had their moments Wednesday.
However, so did the No. 10 Huskers (8-1). Nebraska is the last program to win the NCAA championship before Penn State put the stranglehold on it; the Huskers took the 2006 title in nearby Omaha, Neb.
The last time these two programs met was also in Omaha; they played in the 2008 national semifinals there. Penn State won the first two sets in that match, then Nebraska the next two. It was a madhouse throughout the fifth set, which went to Penn State 15-11.
Wednesday, that outcome was reversed.
"You just go back in the history of Penn State-Nebraska, and it's always like this," said Cook, whose program now has a 12-6 all-time record against the Nittany Lions.
Starting this season, these teams will be regularly meeting twice a year. Might we see either one of them in San Antonio for this year's Final Four? Maybe. The Big Ten will get them well-prepared.
"We were tested to the max tonight," Cook said. "Penn State has a ton of upside because of their size. But I also think we have a chance to get a lot better, as well.
"[Tonight] was the country's first impression of Nebraska volleyball being in the Big Ten. And to have a match like this -- what a special experience for our players and the Penn State players to be in this environment."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.