Nebraska entered the final weekend of Big Ten play needing a win to qualify for its first conference tournament since 2008, and multiple wins to have a shot to move up in the rankings.
The Huskers played well in Ann Arbor, winning two of three games behind excellent pitching efforts of new game one and game three starters Kyle Kubat and Dexter Spitsnogle.
Unfortunately, Penn State and Indiana also had good weekends rendering Nebraska’s series win essentially meaningless, holding Nebraska to fourth place in the conference and as the No. 4 seed in the upcoming tournament.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Huskers were already slated for the No. 4 versus No. 5 game in the B1G tourney, scheduled to face Michigan State for the first time this season.
Final B1G standings
1. Purdue – 17-7 - (Last Week: 1st)
2. Indiana – 16-8 – 1.0 games back – (LW: Tied for 2nd)
3. Penn State – 15-9 – 2.0 games back – (LW: Tied for 2nd)
4. Nebraska – 14-10 – 3.0 games back – (LW: Tied for 4th)
5. Michigan State – 13-11 – 4.0 games back – (LW: Tied for 4th)
6. Ohio State – 11-13 – 6.0 games back (LW: 6th)
Illinois – 11-13 – 6 games back – (LW: Tied for 8th)
Minnesota – 11-13 – 6 games back – (LW: 7th)
9. Iowa – 10-14 – 7 games back (LW: 9th)
10. Michigan – 10-14 – 8 games back (LW: 10th)
11. Northwestern – 6-18 – 12 games back (LW: 11th)
The drama was fairly light on a decisive Saturday.
Michigan State’s upset of Penn State sealed the No. 2 seed and a day one bye in the Big Ten tournament for Indiana. The complicated three-way tiebreaker rules along with Minnesota’s win over Illinois assured the Buckeyes of the sixth seed.
Iowa surprised the league, ambushing conference leader Purdue for a second day in a row and stealing the series from the Boilermakers. Purdue now finds itself having suffered six of its twelve losses in the last three weeks.
One thing is certain: from this point on, two losses in a week can end your season. While the Boilermakers have nothing to prove in Columbus this week and will likely host a regional regardless of their showing, their play down the stretch has been downright uninspired. The fact that they won the regular season conference title by only one game over the Hoosiers is pretty shocking.
The smart money has to be on Penn State and Indiana to win the tournament at this point.
The Nittany Lions have won seven straight weekend series. Meanwhile, Indiana is 10-2 in its last 12 Big Ten contests. Both teams are playing hot and Indiana’s bye will be extremely helpful.
Looking at how the Cornhuskers finished just two games out of second place is a tough pill to swallow consider the series lost to last-place Northwestern. Consider that one-third of the Wildcats’ league victories came at Nebraska’s expense. Also note how the Huskers only managed to go 12-6 against the bottom six teams in the conference.
It’s clear at this point that Nebraska had a lot more rebuilding to do than most observers thought. It’s also obvious that the change in pitching philosophy has been a challenge with the arms on the roster.
We’ll see where Nebraska ends up after the tournament (and a potential extra chance or two against highly-ranked Purdue), but if that ranking stands, it’d be the club’s worst RPI finish since the John Sanders era.
The jury is still out on Darin Erstad. You certainly can’t judge his squad in year one after Mike Anderson had so thoroughly run the program into the ground.
He clearly hired two of the best assistants in the business in Bolt and Silva. It takes time to change the culture of a program and recruit to the new system in place, and a return to the conference post-season is obviously a success.
However, in a shallow league where Nebraska’s resources dwarf those of other squad’s (Nebraska’s ticket revenue of $898,552 is over five times greater the other nine public school’s ticket revenue combined), there are no excuses for not dominating the league moving forward.
The Huskers cannot afford to drop games to sub-200 RPI teams like Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan (They went 5-4 combined against those squads this season).
The good news is that if the pitching can improve to the levels that Ted Silva is capable of producing, Nebraska has the potential for a stout offense and lockdown fielding defense to go along with it. Overall, the Huskers were 6-7 wins and a somewhat better schedule away from at-large consideration this year.
Right now, Nebraska needs to focus on the task at hand in Columbus. Michigan State and Purdue have both proven to be beatable the past few weeks, though the Huskers will face both team’s aces. They did prove that they can hit off Purdue’s Haase, though.
It’s not likely that Nebraska leaves Columbus this weekend with its first Big Ten championship, but then again, for the first time in three years, at least the school has a shot.