Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Head into Final Week of Regular Season with Big Ten Title Up for Grabs

November 22, 2021

“This is what every coach and team dreams for,” Coach John Cook said to lead off his Monday press conference. “We’ve got a shot to win a Big Ten championship this week and we’ve got to give it everything we’ve got.”

Nebraska heads into the final week of the regular season in a tie for first place in the Big Ten standings with a 15-3 league record. The other first place team is Wisconsin, whom the Huskers will face on Friday in Madison.

Purdue, who the Huskers will visit in the regular season finale on Saturday, is one game back at 14-4. Minnesota (who just pushed Wisconsin to five sets on Sunday) and Ohio State are two back at 13-5. A 0-2 week — including a 3-1 loss in Lincoln — knocked Penn State out of the running.

“I’ve been saying it all along, this is the best the conference has been,” Cook said. “There are so many good teams and we’ve got a chance to control our own destiny. We have a tough challenge ahead of us. We like those challenges. But the the most important thing is we’ve worked for nine weeks to get in this position, so we’ve got to go and go for it and enjoy the process and have fun with it. It’s a big challenge, but our team’s worked hard to get to this point.”

Little changed in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll. The Huskers (20-6 overall) remained at No. 11 in the poll (and are still No. 13 in the RPI). Wisconsin (23-3) is still No. 6 and Purdue No. 7. Ohio State (23-5) and Minnesota (17-8) swapped spots, leaving the Buckeyes at No. 9 and the Golden Gophers at No. 10. Penn State (19-9) is still No. 15. Illinois (19-10) moved up one spot to No. 23.

Louisville (26-0) remains No. 1 with 62 of 64 first-place votes. Utah (19-8) is still No. 17 while Stanford (16-10) moved up one spot to No. 18. Creighton (28-3) dropped one spot to No. 22 despite clinching its eight straight Big East title with a 2-0 weekend.

Cook said he believes the return of so many super seniors in addition to the rise in transfers have both contributed to the parity in the conference and nation-wide, and he expects that to continue moving forward. The last time the Big Ten champion had more than two losses was 2011, when the huskers took the title in their first year in the conference at 17-3.

Cook is excited the Huskers are in this position, but he also can’t help but look back at some of the missed opportunities that could have the huskers in an even better position. Even so, the Huskers bounced back from a stretch that saw them lose three times in four matches and got enough help from the rest of the conference (most notably, Purdue beating Wisconsin twice).

“If we had won a couple more deuce games, we would have a lead,” Cook said. “So that’s what we haven’t done. But we’ve obviously done a good enough body of work. I think the biggest thing is is that you can’t get too down or too up in this conference because everybody’s lost matches this year. We lose a match and everybody’s like, ‘What’s wrong? Nebraska is not good,’ whatever. I’ve been saying, it’s really hard to win this year and we’ve stayed pretty bulletproof through it and got up off the mat and come back for the next one. I think that’s what our team has done the best to hang in there for nine weeks.

“It’s been a grind and we’ve had a brutal stretch. We’ve played a lot of weird Wednesday-Saturday, Wednesday-Sundays, Friday. We haven’t played really back-to-back the whole year. We’ve had an interesting schedule, let’s put it that way. So this will be a great test, and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

Nebraska still hasn’t quite found consistency offensively, but the Huskers have made up for it with their serve, block and defense. In Big Ten play, Nebraska is far and away leading the conference in opponent hitting percentage at .149 (Purdue and Wisconsin are next at .173), and the Huskers are allowing a league-low 11.11 kills per set while leading the conference with 18.65 digs per set. The Huskers are also second in service aces (1.54 per set) and first in aces allowed (0.65 per set).

“We spend a lot of time emphasizing serving,” Cook said. “We’re not the most physical team that we will play — Wisconsin obviously is way more physical — but our blockers do a really good job of following the game plan and then our floor defense is exceptional. So those three things all work together, and it’s hard to kill balls on us as you look at the stats. But Wisconsin has players that can kill balls, so we’re going to have to be really good on that. Same with Purdue.”

Some conferences choose to hold postseason tournaments, but Cook is a fan of letting the regular season determine the champion.

“I’ll quote Bobby Knight who used to be a basketball coach … It’s harder to win a Big Ten Championship than it is a national championship because you’ve got to grind for 10 weeks in the toughest conference,” Cook said. “The NCAA tournament is six matches over three weeks. You’ve got to get hot for six matches. Big Ten, you’re on the road, home and away, grinding. So it’s it’s harder to win than a national championship in my opinion.”

The last of those 10 weeks has arrived, and the Huskers will get a long week of practices to prepare for the weekend.

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