All this week the Hail Varsity staff will be selecting its Best of 2018 in multiple categories across any sport the Huskers played. It’s a way to remember the year that was, but also some of these selections may have notes of the future for Nebraska athletics and we’re all thinking at least a little bit about the future right now, right?
Here are our picks for the Huskers’ Win of the Year.
Nebraska 9 Michigan State 6
Erin Sorensen: With seven minutes left in the game, the elevator in the West Stadium portion of Memorial Stadium begins to depart the press box. It allows the media to get to the field in time for the last few minutes of the game before we have to cross over the field to the East side of the stadium for the post-game press conferences.
Nebraska freshman kicker Barret Pickering had just tied the game, 6-6, before I left the press box that day. It was snowing heavily and there were several minutes left in the game. I questioned if I should even leave, just in case it went into overtime.
Michigan State led for most of the game that day. It was 3-0 Spartans (thanks to a first quarter field goal by MSU kicker Matt Coghlin) until 12:13 in the fourth quarter when Coghlin made a 26-yard field goal to take a 6-0 lead. With the snow getting heavier and the wind picking up more than it already was, it felt like an uphill battle for Nebraska to come back.
The freshman booted a 36-yard field goal with 11:07 to go in the fourth quarter to cut the Michigan State lead to 6-3. Three minutes later, he tied it up. Somewhere around this point, I remember turning to Hail Varsity editor Brandon Vogel on the sideline and saying, “This might be the moment it all turns around if Nebraska can pull it off.” (And I didn’t just mean turn around for the game. I meant season.)
Pickering did just that.
With 5:13 to go in the game, he booted a career-long 47-yard field goal to give Nebraska a 9-6 lead.
MORE: Play of the Year | Player of the Year
It wasn’t a pretty win. Michigan State held Nebraska to just 248 total yards of offense and only 145 passing yards for quarterback Adrian Martinez (he was 16-of-37 on the day). Running back Devine Ozigbo did his best to move the ball on the ground though and did walk away with 74 rushing yards. However, MSU still forced two Nebraska fumbles and only allowed 103 rushing yards (and again, Ozigbo had 74 of those). Martinez only managed 17 rushing yards in the snow.
But it didn’t matter in the end. Nebraska found a way to win, which was exactly what Scott Frost had said his team would need to learn how to do. It was an incredible moment for Nebraska and one I’ll never forget.
I don’t think many involved — whether that be as coaches, players, media or fans — will either.
Nebraska 3 Penn State 2
Jacob Padilla: John Cook is fond of the phrase “any win in the Big Ten is a good win,” and that is certainly true. The conference had five teams ranked inside the top 10 for most of the season, two more that were ranked and a couple that received votes at one time or another.
However, there’s one match that matters just a little bit more than the others: Penn State.
Nebraska’s rivalry with the Nittany Lions has become one of the best battles in college volleyball, though it had been somewhat one-sided in Nebraska’s favor over the last few years. Penn State snapped a seven-match losing streak to the Huskers on Oct. 13, winning in five at University Park. That loss was part of the five-losses-in-seven-matches stretch that had many wondering if this young Huskers squad had what it took to accomplish what the past three teams had.
At the end of that stretch, Penn State took the return trip to Lincoln on Nov. 2. The Nittany Lions pulled out a 27-25 win in the first set, and the Huskers could have folded. They didn’t.
Nebraska took the second set 25-19, then dropped the third 25-21. The Huskers won the do-or-die fourth set to extend the match then dominated the fifth frame 15-9 to end their skid and start a new streak against their biggest rival. Mikaela Foecke (15 kills, career-high 29 digs), Lexi Sun (16 kills, 14 digs) and Lauren Stivrins (13 kills, career-high 10 blocks) all had double-doubles as Nebraska held Penn State to .113 hitting. The Huskers had 104 digs and 20 blocks in one of their best defensive efforts of the season.
That win got the Huskers back on track as they didn’t drop another match until the National Championship against Stanford.
“I started thinking after we beat Penn State, and I kept looking at the stats compared to last year, we were leading in several categories this year,” Cook said. “Then I thought, Okay, if [freshman setter] Nicklin [Hames] can continue to improve, we’ve got a shot. So we spent a lot of time on what we did all year, developing and improving Nicklin, getting her to play free, not worry about being a freshman at Nebraska, all that. I think it was a combination of those things.
“Then, you know, we had some big wins down the stretch. Purdue was a big match. Of course, getting through the regional, which I thought was the toughest regional in the country. Everybody agrees with that.”
Any win in the Big Ten is a good one, and any win over Penn State is a great one, but this particular victory over the Nittany Lions meant just a little bit more.
Nebraska 94 Creighton 75
Derek Peterson: There are games that bring with them nothing more than a notch in the win or loss column, games you don’t learn anything about either team during and games where everyone involved just wants to reach the end of. Then there are games that go so far beyond just the confines of one affair, that have the potential to make or break a season or a team’s psyche.
I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say Nebraska’s Dec. 8 meeting with Creighton at Pinnacle Bank Arena had the potential to do both. The Huskers were 7-2 and coming off a disappointing loss to Minnesota on the road. The kind of loss that causes all the Tim Miles doubters out there to get extra loud. A loss to Creighton at home — an eighth straight loss to Creighton overall — might have been the kiss of death.
Because there’s not really any telling what might have happened if Nebraska’s best team in decades welcomed its most hated rival into its own building and lost. A lot of us thought a Nebraska loss would begin the unraveling. Certainly would have been an eyesore on the Huskers’ NCAA Tournament resume.
But then James Palmer Jr. drilled his first three triples, Thomas Allen Jr. had the game of his life, Miles put CU coach Greg McDermott on blast and the Huskers rolled to a 19-point, wire-to-wire win over the Jays.
McDermott and staff were more concerned about Nebraska drives than Nebraska jumpers, so the solution was just to let Nebraska shoot uncontested look after uncontested look from beyond the arc. In the biggest game of their respective careers — and one of the loudest home environments I’ve ever heard — no one missed and each new make fueled the next.
Palmer finished with 30 points on 6-of-7 shooting from 3; Allen went for 11 of his career high 18 points in the first 12 minutes; each of the other three starters scored in double-digits and Nebraska hit a collective 14 3s at a 52 percent clip.
“I’m just so happy for our program and our fans,” Miles said after the game. “Much has been made about it and today was a great Husker day, that’s for sure.
“In the pregame, in warmups, [assistant coach] Michael Lewis came in when the guys were out there and he goes, ‘They’re either nervous or laser-focused.’ I think we know where they were, they were laser-focused.”
And they’ve had back-to-back 20-point blowouts since.
Nebraska 53 Minnesota 28
Greg Smith: Prior to the Minnesota game, Nebraska had what seemed like a season full of bad luck. Frustration had certainly built up prior to the team finally getting over the hump to get the first win of the Frost Era. The cancelled game against Akron. The near win against Colorado when Adrian Martinez got hurt. The loss to Troy. The blowout loss at Michigan which was rock bottom. The not-so-close loss against Purdue. The frustrating loss at the hands of Wisconsin. The game that should have been a win against Northwestern.
All of that angst and frustration was let out on Oct. 20 when the Huskers took down Minnesota 53-28.
On that day there seemed to be plays that just bounced Nebraska’s way by chance. Were those bounces luck or were they created by the Huskers playing a lot more fundamentally sound, particularly on defense?
“When you are doing what you are supposed to do, good things tend to happen,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said after the win. “When you are where you are supposed to be then stuff like that happens. Like Dedrick [Young], that tipped ball. He was at the right place at the right time and made the play. It definitely has a lot to do with it.”
In a lot of ways, the feeling that day was “finally the first win happened” instead of “remember this day in history” but that is pretty indicative of how the season started. There was a big thing that victory over Minnesota did besides getting the monkey off the team’s back in my opinion. I’ve long thought that win cemented the player’s trust in the coaching staff. After that game there was much less talk about players freelancing within the scheme and the “buy-in” talk subsided.
That made Oct. 20 worth even more than just one win against a rebuilding program.
QB1 1 QB2 0 (Or: Nebraska 1 Tennessee 0)
Brandon Vogel: Who knows how close Nebraska’s offseason quarterback competition every really was. Judging by Adrian Martinez’s freshman-season numbers, if it was actually close Tristan Gebbia is going to have a great career at Oregon State. (Here’s hoping he does.)
While not a win in the conventional sense, Martinez winning that QB derby was the source of the one thought I couldn’t shake during the 2018 football season. To quote my inner dialogue, it always went something like this, “Well, they got the quarterback right.”
I don’t remember when I first had the thought. Probably not the Colorado game (small sample size), and couldn’t have been against Troy (injury) or Michigan (destruction) either. Maybe Purdue? It was Martinez’s first game with more than 400 total yards, and he’d already solidified himself as a wise-beyond-his-years freshman via his weekly interviews at that point. The start date doesn’t really matter in the long run, but getting the quarterback right does.
It’s not easy to do, but Scott Frost and staff did it out of the gate with a targeted strike. When the new staff took over last December, Martinez, then a Tennessee commit, was their must-have target. They pulled out all of the stops. That, however, isn’t what’s unique here. There’s usually one of those guys in every class.
What is unique about it: Martinez looked like a guy who merited that sort of effort from his debut. Expectations are always going to be high for first quarterback of a new era. Almost by default, that person has to be the cornerstone of what’s to come. It’s really hard to be a really good football team with average quarterback play.
Nebraska shouldn’t have to worry about that for at least a couple of years. Martinez was very good right away and he’ll be better in the seasons to come. While one player can’t do it all himself –– as 2018’s record indicates –– having a quarterback with the highest of ceilings raises the ceiling for the program as a whole.
I’m using Martinez “winning” the quarterback race as something of a loophole here. The real win was in Nebraska’s coaches being right about Martinez. I muttered some version of that sentiment to myself at least 20 times this fall.
That’s why I didn’t really have a choice but to select this as my biggest Husker win of the year.