Once upon a time, exciting things happened in Husker athletics. Nebraska football won games against opponents you could actually recognize and in exciting fashion. Nebraska men’s basketball pulled off the occasional upset. Nebraska baseball won a conference tournament. Nebraska volleyball — well, they’re still really good.
Despite not winning big, football and basketball provided a number of fun moments, even if the joy was fleeting. Volleyball is in the midst of a historic run, women’s basketball recorded a string of NCAA Tournament appearances, including the best season in school history, and baseball hired two homegrown coaches. Here’s a look back at some of the best moments of the decade in Husker sports, starting with football.
Arguably, the most important moment for Nebraska football came July 1, 2011, when Nebraska officially left the Big 12 Conference. On its way out the door, Nebraska football provided some fun moments, including then-freshman Taylor Martinez starting up his Heisman Trophy hype train in a road game against Washington.
On the day, Martinez went 7-11 passing, totalling 150 yards and a touchdown, but his greatest contributions were in the running game.
T-Magic, as he was soon to be called, was Nebraska’s leading rusher that afternoon in Husky Stadium with 19 carries for 137 yards and three touchdowns. That included a pair of 1-yard sneaks, but his third was an 80-yard sprint to start the third quarter.
He outdid himself two-and-a-half weeks later. Nebraska opened conference play against long-time enemy Kansas State. Martinez completed five of his seven passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, which was a strike to Kyler Reed who rumbled 79 yards to score.
Once again, however, Martinez’s legs were the story.
That Thursday night, he ran 15 times for 241 yards and four touchdowns. Nebraska’s other rushing touchdown came courtesy of senior running back Roy Helu Jr. Helu Jr. had eight carries for 110 yards and that score versus Kansas State, but he was the catalyst of No. 14 Nebraska’s 31-17 win over No. 7 Missouri in Lincoln.
With the Tigers focusing on stopping Martinez, who they held to 12 carries for only 16 yards, Helu ran wild. His first carry of the day was a 66-yard touchdown, and he would add 53-yard and 73-yard jaunts before the game was over. In total, Helu received 28 carries and ran for a school-record 307 yards.
Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten did not open pleasantly as the Huskers were stomped by Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium in their first conference game. Their next game was against Ohio State, who came to Lincoln without coach Jim Tressel but still loaded with talent. OSU held a commanding 27-6 lead with 11 minutes left in the third quarter. Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller left the game with an ankle injury on a Lavonte David tackle that forced a fumble and it was all Nebraska from there.
Nebraska scored 28 unanswered points with the game-tying and go-ahead touchdowns scored by junior running back Rex Burkhead, who had 31 touches and 178 all purpose yards.
In 2013, Nebraska needed a miracle to beat Northwestern’s “Cardiac Cats.” It got one out of the right shoulder of senior quarterback Ron Kellogg III and the hands of freshman wideout Jordan Westerkamp, who connected for an all-time Hail Mary.
Nebraska ended the 2014 regular season with a trip to Iowa City to take on the not-yet-but-becoming rival Hawkeyes. The Huskers found themselves down 24-7 with just under nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, but fought back to take a 28-24 lead on an 80-yard punt return touchdown by freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El.
Iowa would climb back in front with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jake Rudock to Jordan Canzeri with only 1:49 left in the game, but Nebraska marched all the way to the Iowa three yard line, setting up freshman Drew Brown for a 20-yard game-tying field goal, which he made.
Iowa led off overtime with a field goal of its own, giving Nebraska a chance to match or win.
That would be head coach Bo Pelini’s last game in charge of the program and remains Nebraska’s last win over Iowa to date.
In 2015, Nebraska had lost five games by one possession or less heading into a November showdown with No. 6 Michigan State, a contender for the College Football Playoff.
The Huskers were down 31-20 entering the game’s final frame and then down 12 points at 38-26 with 4:15 left to play. Nebraska scored with 1:47 on the clock to cut the deficit to five and a defensive stop earned the ball back with the length of the field to go.
Tommy Armstrong found Brandon Reilly for the game-winning touchdown and Michigan State eventually made the Playoff, so that’s a win-win, right?
After winning the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA following the 2015 season, loss was a theme of 2016 as Husker punter Sam Foltz died in a car accident while in Wisconsin helping run a camp for specialists. Nebraska played Fresno State and was forced to punt early. For that first punt, the Huskers utilized a punt formation with only 10 men on the field and no punter back deep to honor Foltz.
We mostly don’t talk about what came between that event and this next one.
In December of 2017, Nebraska was searching for a new head football coach. New athletic director Bill Moos had his eyes set on only one prize, Scott Frost.
Frost was officially hired to lead Nebraska in early December of 2017 and, like many young coaches and those who enter difficult circumstances, he and his team have struggled. One program that has not struggled much this decade, though? Nebraska volleyball.
The early 2010s were a strange time for Nebraska volleyball. After winning the 2006 National Championship and reaching the 2008 Final Four, the team failed to return to the Final Four for each of the next six seasons. In 2015, a pair of confident freshmen helped Nebraska change that.
Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney were integral to Nebraska’s 2015 season. Foecke finished second on the team in kills with 286 on .277 hitting while Maloney started 30 matches, recording 192 digs while learning from junior libero Justine Wong-Orantes.
A historic game that season was Nebraska’s road match at Penn State. The No. 1 Nittany Lions were on a 33-match winning streak and found themselves up two sets to none over Nebraska, but the Huskers dominated set three, won set four and took set five 15-11 to complete the reverse sweep. The win was Nebraska’s first true road win over a number one team in program history and only Nebraska’s second win all time in State College, Pennsylvania.
That win sparked Nebraska to a Final Four appearance only 60 miles up the road in Omaha. After losing only two sets through four rounds, Nebraska blasted former Big 12 foe Kansas 3-1 in the national semifinal. On the other side of the bracket, another former Big 12 opponent, Texas, beat current conference rival Minnesota three sets to one, setting up a rematch of a September contest which the Longhorns dominated.
The game was tight throughout, but Nebraska vanquished its oldest foe in a sweep, 25-23, 25-23, 25-21, erasing heartbreak from the last two matchups to win its fourth national title in program history.
That kicked off an unprecedented era of success for the volleyball team. It made the Final Four again in 2016 and found its way back yet again in 2017, led by who else but Foecke and Maloney.
En route to the Final Four at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, No. 14 Nebraska went to Happy Valley and swept No. 2 Penn State, the first time such a feat had been accomplished since Minnesota did it in 2003. Nebraska’s win marked its sixth straight over Russ Rose and the Nittany Lions.
The two teams would clash once more that year, this time in the national semifinals. Nebraska won the first set but dropped the next two before staring down match point in the fourth set. Penn State’s setter and hitter tripped over one another, allowing the ball to hit the deck to grant Nebraska a point. The Huskers won the next two points to send the game to a fifth set, where senior setter Kelly Hunter took over.
That match came in front of 18,374 fans, an NCAA record, and sent Nebraska on to face Florida, who upset Stanford in the finals. The result of the championship game felt all but preordained. In front of another NCAA record crowd of 18,516 people, Nebraska dispatched Florida 3-1 to win the program’s latest national championship.
Last year, Nebraska found itself in an 0-2 hole against in-state upstart rival Creighton at the CHI Health Center in Omaha only 5 games into its title defense campaign. The Huskers dominated set three and won set four before Foecke, a senior in 2018, rattled off nine of her career-high 25 kills in the fifth set to bring Nebraska back from life support to victory.
While not a game, the team’s move out of the Coliseum and to the Devaney Center occurred early on in this decade. The basketball programs vacated and moved to Pinnacle Bank Arena for the 2013-2014 season, allowing the volleyball team to renovate the arena for its own needs. “The Bob” allowed attendance to nearly double from 4,000 seats to 7,907, yet Nebraska fans continued the sellout streak in the new building, a streak that dates back to the midpoint of the 2001 season.
The Devaney Center’s last major win under Doc Sadler came a year before the team moved out. During the 2011-12 season, Doc Sadler was the head coach of the Huskers, and faced No. 13 Indiana in a conference game in January. The Hoosiers were led by future professionals Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and shot 51 percent from the floor compared to Nebraska’s 37.7 percent clip, yet Nebraska found itself up 70-69 with mere seconds remaining following a pair of made free throws by reserve center Jorge Brian Diaz.
From there, chaos reigned, and Nebraska secured the 70-69 upset.
Tim Miles entered stage left and after a rough first year, Nebraska relocated to the new Pinnacle Bank Arena. Little of note happened there until late January of 2014. Nebraska defeated No. 17 Ohio State to earn its first win over a ranked opponent in its new arena. That keyed a 5-2 stretch for the Huskers that brought them in front of the Izzone in East Lansing, Michigan.
The No. 9 Michigan State Spartans were led by future pros Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris and also featured Adreian Payne, Travis Trice and Matt Costello. That February night, Nebraska countered with Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford, who combined for 41 points on 13-29 shooting, including 5-10 combined from 3-point range.
Nebraska won 60-51 in the Breslin Center and took care of business the rest of the way and found itself squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Another marquee win would bolster Nebraska’s resume and likely earn the Huskers a chance to go dancing in March.
Fortuitously, the Big Ten offered no shortage of high-profile games and Nebraska capped its regular season with such a tilt, a matchup against No. 9 Wisconsin. Throughout the week, fans on social media implored one another to remain standing for the entirety of the game.
That sentiment spurred Nebraska to a 77-68 win over the top-10 Badgers. To this day, No-Sit Sunday is regarded as one of the greatest showings of fan support by one of the country’s premier fanbases.
Nebraska would go on to qualify for the NCAA Tournament but was bounced in the first round by Baylor.
After only sporadic success, Miles found his seat warming as he entered the 2018-19 season. One log on the fire under his seat was the inability to beat Creighton, coached by Greg McDermott. McDermott owned a sterling 14-0 record against Miles dating back to when the pair began coaching in Division III.
In 2018, Nebraska was led by a lethal senior triumvirate consisting of transfers James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. plus steady point guard Glynn Watson Jr. It was Palmer Jr., affectionately dubbed “JPJ” by fans, who led the way for Nebraska with 30 points. All five starters scored in double figures and combined to shoot 13-24 from deep as Nebraska blitzed Creighton in a 94-75 win.
An injury to Copeland Jr. derailed Nebraska’s season, but the Huskers found plenty of resolve down the stretch. In the regular season finale, Nebraska sought revenge against Iowa for a loss earlier in conference play. The Hawkeyes led for the majority of the game, by double-digits most of the second half, but Nebraska had cut a 16-point deficit down to seven with 1:43 on the clock.
In that time, the legend of Johnny Trueblood was born.
Trueblood was a walk-on player from Elkhorn South high school who had played for a year, left the team, and rejoined it. He found little besides spot minutes until Miles was down to Trueblood and his high school teammate Justin Costello on the bench due to injuries.
Nebraska had scored to make it a seven-point game and, while everyone else ran back down the court, Trueblood sneakily sidled up to Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon and proceeded to wrest control of the ball back from the player who had seemingly buried Nebraska with a late shot clock three mere moments earlier.
Trueblood shoveled the ball to junior Isaiah Roby (wearing the injured Copeland’s jersey on Senior Day), who drove the lane for a layup that cut the deficit to five at 70-65.
Nebraska was down 74-65 before a Palmer three and again at 76-68 before a Watson triple with 45 seconds remaining. The Huskers trailed 81-79 with 15 seconds remaining and put the ball in Palmer Jr.’s hands to try and force overtime. A driving scoop shot tied the game and freshman Amir Harris deflected Bohannon’s attempt at a game winner to force the extra period.
Overtime was a back-and-forth affair, but Nebraska took a 93-91 lead with 10.8 seconds left on a righty floater by Harris. Iowa had a chance to tie or win and drew up a look from three, trying to walk off on the Huskers with a three like Miguel Recinos did for the football team the season before.
In its last-ditch defense package, the basketball team had one weapon the football team did not — a 6-foot-6, left-handed, Icelandic sophomore named Thorir Thorbjarnarson who blocked the shot to secure the 93-91 win.
While Nebraska added Fred Hoiberg that offseason, it lost Roby, who declared for the NBA Draft one year after testing the waters. On draft day, the 6-foot-8 forward was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round as the 45th pick. He became the first Nebraska player drafted since Venson Hamilton went 50th to the Houston Rockets in 1999.
In the early part of the decade, Nebraska women’s basketball was becoming entrenched in the NCAA Tournament, qualifying two of the three previous seasons. The 2009-10 outfit became the best of head coach Connie Yori’s Nebraska teams.
Led by fifth-year senior Kelsey Griffin, who returned from an injury the season before, Nebraska recorded a perfect record in the regular season. The Huskers wrapped up their second Big 12 regular season championship ever (and first since the 1987-88 season) on the road at Oklahoma with an 80-64 win.
The next game was a Saturday contest against Missouri and while Nebraska won to move to 27-0 and Griffin recorded her 17th double-double of the season, the most important number of the day was 13,595.
That’s the number of fans who attended that Nebraska win, marking the first sell-out for a women’s basketball game in Devaney Center history.
Nebraska would go on to win two more regular season games, a game in the Big 12 tournament and two NCAA Tournament games that season, finishing the year 32-2 with a Sweet 16 appearance, the furthest into March a Husker women’s basketball team had ever played.
The program would feature in four of the next five NCAA Tournaments and won the Big 12 tournament in 2013-14, the program’s first-ever conference tournament title. Two years later, Yori was fired and, yet again, athletic director Bill Moos brought a former player back home.
Amy Williams was introduced as Nebraska’s new head coach before the 2016-2017 season and, after typical year one struggles, she engineered an eight-win difference in conference play and led Nebraska to 14 more wins overall. The Husker qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed.
The defining moment of Nebraska baseball came early in the decade. Head coach Mike Anderson was fired after the 2011 season as he was unable to replicate the success of his predecessor, Dave Van Horn.
The man brought in to replace him was none other than Darin Erstad, a former Husker under coach John Sanders. Erstad played three years in Lincoln before he was the first overall pick in the 1995 MLB Draft by the California Angels. Erstad was also the punter for Nebraska football’s 1994 and 1995 national championship teams.
As head coach, Erstad guided Nebraska to a fourth-place finish in the conference in 2012 before a third-place finish in 2013. However, the team’s resume was not solid enough to garner much consideration for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament regional. Nebraska would need to win its way to the dance from Target Field in Minneapolis.
The Huskers blasted Michigan 11-2 to open the conference tournament but fell to the second seed, Ohio State, 3-2 the next day to fall to the losers’ bracket. Nebraska defeated Minnesota the next day and avenged its loss to Ohio State the day after. That set up a meeting with top-seeded Indiana (who was still perfect in tournament play) immediately following the Ohio State game.
The teams traded leads throughout the game. Nebraska led 6-5 in the top of the ninth, but Indiana tied the contest on a pair of doubles. The score remained 6-6 through the bottom of the ninth, the entirety of the 10th, and the top of the11th.
In the home half of the 11th inning, sophomore catcher Tanner Lubach strode to the plate 0-16 to that point in the tournament. That changed on the third pitch of his at-bat.
That was his first home run since the season opener against CSU Bakersfield and it launched Nebraska into a sudden-death game the next day with the winner being crowned the Big Ten champion. Nebraska lost the next day and failed to qualify for a regional.
The team would qualify for regionals in 2014, 2016 and 2017, when Nebraska won its first Big Ten Baseball Championship. After missing out on the postseason in 2018, Nebraska found its way back to a regional in 2019.
The team entered the Big Ten Tournament unsure of its status in the eyes of the selection committee. Nebraska opened the tournament with dominant performances in wins over Minnesota and Iowa on back-to-back days before getting hammered 18-8 by the high-powered Michigan offense the day after defeating Iowa.
That set up a rematch later in the evening for the right to advance to the championship round. The game was tied at three in the fifth inning, but Nebraska scored two runs in the sixth and two more in the eighth to win 7-3. The Huskers fell in the title game to Ohio State, but did enough to qualify for the Oklahoma City regional, hosted by Oklahoma State.
Six days after beating Michigan, Nebraska defeated Connecticut 8-5 in its opening game in Oklahoma City for its first regional win since 2014. The Huskers worked through and around danger across the first three innings but kept the game within reach before they tagged UConn’s Mason Feole for seven earned runs, the lefty’s career-worst total. Nebraska would lose the next two games and Erstad resigned abruptly, deciding that he wanted to spend time with his growing children.
That led to another search process for Moos, who eventually brought another former player back home.
That player was Will Bolt, a former infielder and two-time captain who not only played at Nebraska (from 1999-2002) but was a volunteer assistant in 2005 and served as Erstad’s assistant head coach from 2012-2014. Bolt left Nebraska to work at Texas A&M under Rob Childress, one of his former coaches at Nebraska before returning to his alma mater.