Redemption Saturday: Penn State Football, Volleyball Get Rematches With Familiar Foes

You can’t change the past, but a pair of Penn State programs have the chance to rid themselves of old demons Saturday in their midseason home clashes.

Penn State football, which suffered the second loss of its 2017 season to Michigan State after falling to Ohio State the game before, will enter Beaver Stadium Saturday in almost a replicated situation that it saw last year in East Lansing — win or kiss Big Ten title and College Football Playoff hopes goodbye.

Penn State women’s volleyball has a separate set of harsh memories in the back of its mind when fellow powerhouse Nebraska comes to town. The Cornhuskers have ended Penn State’s season the last two years in the NCAA Tournament — both five-set matches in which the Nittany Lions had match points.

Call it fate, call it inevitability, or call it a perfectly timed doubleheader for fans in town and back home — with football kicking off at 3:30 p.m. and volleyball getting underway in Rec Hall at 8 p.m., both airing on BTN.

Whatever you call it, a lot is once again on the line in both of these showdowns.

Penn State football doesn’t want to think about what slipped away in that two-week span last season.

It took a grand total of four points — the total difference in the Nittany Lions losses to Ohio State and Michigan State — to rip away hopes for any sort of championship. It was a team that peaked at No. 2 in the AP Poll for the first time this century, but after those two losses in games where Penn State held fourth quarter leads, a Fiesta Bowl berth was the only ending the star-studded 2017 team could muster. 

“We try not to flashback to last year or the years previous,” wide receiver Juwan Johnson said. “We’re just sort of trying to just focus on now; focus on what we can do this game to do better and work from there.”

The back-and-forth battle with the Buckeyes stung, but it was the loss to Michigan State — a game Penn State was a nine-point road favorite — that Penn State truly lost with a deflated performance.

To be fair, the Ohio State hangover definitely wasn’t the only factor in the meeting. Weather was less than ideal in Spartan Stadium and lightning in the area caused more than a three-hour delay in the second quarter with Penn State leading 14-7. The Nittany Lions emerged afterwards a shell of itself.

“We had a rough game. That’s all I can really say. That delay didn’t really help,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “We didn’t come out as strong as we could have. I don’t really know. There’s not much you can say about a three-hour delay in a game.”

A four-minute, 53-yard drive into field goal range — helped out by a roughing the passer penalty on Marcus Allen — clinched a walk-off win for the Spartans.

The Ohio State game put Penn State in a tough predicament and, as we know now, would’ve been enough to keep Penn State out of the Big Ten title game. However, coming in at No. 7 in the first College Football Playoff ranking right after the game with the Buckeyes, Penn State still had conceivable hopes of reaching the top four.

The Michigan State loss officially put the nail in the coffin on any dreams of that. 

It’s the same situation this time around. Penn State doesn’t control its own destiny, but the ultimate postseason dreams aren’t dead yet. The Spartans stand in the way once again.

“Nick Scott and Trace [McSorley] were the ones in the locker room talking, saying things like this happen and it does suck that we lost, but sort of just moving forward,” Johnson said about his team’s mentality after another one-point loss to Ohio State.

“I always talk about bouncing back and being resilient and us coming back, working on the little things and focusing on the details, getting back to the drawing board and doing what we do, and that’s pretty much winning. Once we focus on that and focus on the game-by-game, then we’ll be alright.”

Some might call it the greatest rivalry in college volleyball. Yet, the results have been all too one-sided in recent years for a matchup that features teams which have claimed nine of the last 12 national titles.

Since 2015, Nebraska has defeated Penn State in seven straight. 

The most notable of that stretch, and easily one of the most notable in series history, was the last meeting at the 2017 Final Four. The Nittany Lions dropped the first set, but rallied to take the next two and were on track to avenge an early-season defeat — the only regular season loss of Penn State’s season — to a freshman-laden Cornhuskers roster.

It wasn’t meant to be.

After coming back from a 24-22 fourth-set deficit, Penn State earned a match point. A dig from Kendall White put Penn State in position to set up Simone Lee for the winning kill, but the ball never made it over to her. Setter Abby Detering tripped over Heidi Thelen trying to get out of the front court, and the ball harmlessly hit the floor.

Nebraska regrouped to take the next two points to win the set and strolled through the back half of the fifth set to advance to the national title game.

“In this business, you appreciate the efforts of you seniors, and we had a lot of kids who were seniors. Certain programs get judged based on their national championships and not just their day-to-day effort,” Coach Rose said after his team’s Final Four loss.

“The efforts that we’ve had over the course of time have placed us into a little different area and, you know, this group hasn’t been able to close the deal as they did when they were on a team as freshmen.”

It was the last match for Rec Hall legends Lee, Haleigh Washington, and the remainder of one of the best recruiting classes in college volleyball history.

With their departure, no current Nittany Lions have have played in a national championship game. Fifth-year seniors Nia Reed and Bryanna Weiskircher were part of the last title-winning team in 2014, but both redshirted that season.

Saturday’s game with Nebraska is by no means on a similar stage as that Final Four clash, but it represents something new for Penn State against the Cornhuskers: a fresh start. 

Eight freshmen make up this Penn State roster that sits at No. 9 in the AVCA Coaches Poll. With a pair of Big Ten losses already this season, it needs to take down the best if it wants a chance at the conference crown.

And by the time we reach the postseason, there’s no easier route to another Final Four than receiving home matches. A win against the fifth-ranked Cornhuskers goes a long way toward a top-four seeding, which grants the right to hosting all of its NCAA Tournament matches until the national semifinals.

“We have Penn State on our backs. That’s why we came here,” White, the team’s star libero, said earlier this season. “We came here to win a national championship. We came here to win always. Playing up to that level is what we need to do all the time.”

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About the Author

Steve Connelly

Unfortunately, former editor Steve Connelly has graduated. Where is he now? He might be doing something related to that PR degree he got in 2019. Maybe he finally opened that sports bar named after one of his photos, the Blurry Zamboni. Or he might just be eating chicken tenders and couch surfing. Anything’s possible. If you really want to know, follow him on Twitter @slc2o.

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