Underdog Illinois looks for upset over No. 3 Nebraska in front of sold out home crowd

The+Illinois+volleyball+team+huddle+after+their+victory+against+Rutgers+on+Oct.+12.+The+Illini+will+be+going+up+against+No.+3+Nebraska+on+Saturday.+

Sydney Laput

The Illinois volleyball team huddle after their victory against Rutgers on Oct. 12. The Illini will be going up against No. 3 Nebraska on Saturday.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

A couple of sweep losses to top-10 opponents later, and the Illini now find themselves with a 9-10 record heading into their toughest test so far. Illinois, still without a ranked win, is now set to take on No. 3 Nebraska, the foe who ended the Illini’s season last year in the Sweet 16.

Playing three top-10 opponents in the past week has been a brutal schedule for the team, but for the Big Ten, this schedule is a given. Even though the results haven’t favored the Illini this season, the team is embracing its role as the underdog.

“I mean honestly in the Big Ten you look across the net and everyone is a challenge, everyone is a threat,” sophomore libero Caroline Barnes said. “But personally, when we have this many ranked teams in a row, it just gets me excited because it’s just that many more chances for an upset.”

Good news for Illinois heading into Saturday is the return of senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge, whose cameo on Wednesday night helped inspire a late-set comeback attempt. After a month out with an ankle injury, her first touch of the ball in Big Ten play was an ace against No. 6 Ohio State, bringing the set score to 19-21 in favor of Ohio State. Although the set ended with the Buckeyes victorious, Nunge’s return to the floor is a promising sign for Illinois moving forward, and at the time created an electric team atmosphere with her ace.

“It was amazing. That was probably a top-10 favorite moment at Illinois volleyball,” Barnes said. “We were pumped for her … She’s a stud. We missed her.”

Nebraska has remained uncontested as the Big Ten No. 1 all season, even topping national rankings to begin the season before falling to No. 9 Stanford in four sets. Since then, the Cornhuskers have gone on a 10-win streak, sweeping No. 12 Purdue, who Illinois lost to in five sets early on in conference play. 

The nearly unbeatable Cornhuskers have looked like true juggernauts this season, only losing eight sets in 18 matches. However, in the rest of the country, tides are shifting. In the past couple of weeks, the underdogs have been getting results.

Within the Big Ten, Maryland was the first team to shake things up. Sunday, the Terrapins went into West Lafayette, Ind., and swept the Boilermakers, knocking Purdue out of the top 10. Before this, Purdue hadn’t dropped a match to anyone outside of the top five.

Wednesday night, however, was the biggest upset of the season. Unranked Iowa State delivered No. 1 Texas its first loss of the season in five sets. Seeing these upsets happen this week gives the Illini some hope as underdogs. With juggernauts falling elsewhere in the country, why should Saturday night in Champaign be any different?

“Yeah (it inspires us),” redshirt senior setter Diana Brown said. “It’s just, again, any given day (an upset can happen). You’ve just got to do your job, and play volleyball. That’s why you play.”

Illinois’ match against national juggernauts Nebraska begins at 6 p.m. on Saturday in front of a packed Huff Hall crowd. The match is the team’s Pink Out game, and the Illini will don pink accented jerseys for the second time this season.

 

@DrewFriberg9

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