Sunday's dual was supposed to be a changing of the guard moment at the top of college wrestling. It was supposed to be the official changeover from the recent run of Iowa dominance to the first coronation of our new Penn State overlords. Granted, it would be only a dual meet win in January -- no trophies would be handed out at its conclusion, no banners would be hung for its victor -- but it was still supposed to be a turning point. It was going to mark the end of Iowa's 72-meet unbeaten streak and confirm Penn State's ascendancy. Penn State had been steamrolling the rest of the nation, had ascended to the #1 ranking after Cornell's loss to Lehigh last week, and featured a team loaded with not just highly-touted recruits, but wrestlers who had been extraordinarily good in action this year -- they had seven wrestlers who entered the meet ranked in the top ten (all matches they were favored in, incidentally). Hell, even I picked a Penn State win in my preview on Friday, the second time in three weeks I've been wrong about picking against Iowa -- maybe I should learn my lesson.
But after the events of Sunday's dual, when Iowa won three of the seven matches in which they were underdogs (and six matches total), and virtually coasted to a 22-13 victory thanks to a molten-hot start, it might be wise to hold off on that coronation. National titles aren't defended or lost in January, but this was a statement win for Iowa: we're still here and we're not going anywhere yet. Like the immortal Ric Flair says, "To be the man, you still gotta beat the man." No one's done it yet. And my crow? It tasted delicious, especially after I washed it down with more of Cael Sanderson's tears.
#11 Iowa 22, #1 Penn State 13
125: #3 Matt McDonough FALL (4:16) Nate Morgan (Iowa, 6-0)
133: #10 Tony Ramos DEC (3-2) #5 Andrew Long (Iowa, 9-0)
141: Montell Marion DEC (11-9) #5 Andrew Alton (Iowa, 12-0)
149: #5 Frank Molinaro DEC (10-3) Mark Ballweg (Iowa, 12-3)
157: #3 David Taylor MAJ DEC (12-4) #14 Derek St. John (Iowa, 12-7)
165: #14 Aaron Janssen DEC (6-2) Jake Kemerer (Iowa, 15-7)
174: #2 Ed Ruth DEC (10-3) #13 Ethen Lofthouse (Iowa, 15-10)
184: #16 Grant Gambrall DEC (8-3) #6 Quentin Wright (Iowa, 18-10)
197: #14 Luke Lofthouse MAJ DEC (17-6) Nick Ruggear (Iowa, 22-10)
HWT: #5 Cameron Wade DEC (1-0) Blake Rasing (Iowa, 22-13)
So what was the key to the dual? Maybe it wasn't the match points (though Iowa won there, 67-60) or the takedowns (Iowa won there, too, 23-14) or the bonus points (Iowa had four to Penn State's one). Maybe it was what was going on between the ears:
"It’s an opportunity, a big opportunity and you either seize the moment and take advantage of it or you don’t. If you look at the tape, they wanted it more than us. I’m not sure how that could be possible but that was the case today," Sanderson said. (emphasis added)
It's possible because that's the one part of coaching you still haven't figured out, Cael. Your ability as a recruiter is second-to-none; no one questions the talent you've been able to draw to Happy Valley. Your technical acumen is generally excellent; most guys improve under your tutelage. But that final piece, the motivation factor? The ability to get a team performing at its highest level in the biggest meets and the most important settings? The ability to win with not just guys who have staggering natural talent (your David Taylors and Ed Ruths), but the other guys, the scrappy guys who weren't coveted by every single program in America? You still haven't figured that out. It's why your Iowa State team choked with the Midlands title in its grasp two years ago. It's why your Iowa State teams never put it together at the NCAA Tournament, despite frequently having plenty of talent. And it's why you've never -- not ever -- beaten Iowa.
He’s 0-9 against Iowa, though.
Translation: A team on which Sanderson was a member or coach has never beaten the Hawkeyes.
As an undergrad at Iowa State, he was often the only member of the team to score points in his team’s dual meets, but his team still went 0-4 against the Hawkeyes. Then, he lost three more times to his in-state rival as a coach at Iowa State. And Sunday’s loss was his second as the coach at Penn State.
How did Iowa win every NCAA Tournament, every Big Ten Tournament, every National Duals Tournament, and every Midlands Tournament they entered for three years? Not by having more talent than everyone else, although they weren't exactly lacking in that department, what with guys like Brent Metcalf, Mark Perry, Jay Borschel, Phil Keddy, Dan Erekson, Ryan Morningstar, Matt McDonough, and so on. They won because they consistently figured out ways to win or eke out points, even when things went sour or got tough. Sometimes raw talent isn't enough. Sometimes talent trips or chokes -- that's what happened two years ago when a loaded Iowa team had to scrap and claw its way to a second-straight national title. That title didn't feature a single national champion (and only one finalist, Brent Metcalf); it was won by guys who battled back through the consolation bracket to rack up points after their national title dreams went down in flames early on.
The Hawkeyes compete hard every minute. They never stop.
They’re Iowa. And you’re not.
On a literal level, there's some obviously hyperbolic exaggeration in that statement -- Janssen and Gambrall too often seem content to settle for decision wins, Rasing is too often happy to handfight for six minutes and go hard for the final minute, and St. John occasionally seems too passive -- but as a general ethos? It's dead on. It's McDonough not settling for anything less than a pin. It's Marion fighting back after going down 5-0 early and throwing Alton around like a ragdoll while Alton tries to lay motionless on the mat. It's Lofthouse the Elder constantly going for takedowns even after securing a major decision. Hell, it's even there things are going bad, like an undersized Mark Ballweg working his ass of to avoid giving up a major decision loss.
But as sweet as this win was -- and oh my was it ever sweet -- it doesn't change the point I made in the first paragraph: national titles aren't lost in January -- and they aren't defended, either. It's entirely possible -- maybe even likely -- that Iowa is a better dual meet team and Penn State is a better tournament team, which could serve them well come the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. They came up short today, but there's no doubting the fact that they have serious talent on their team. Taylor and Ruth are absolutely legit and look like strong contenders to be finalists. Molinaro is very tough as well and could benefit from being in a division that isn't terribly deep. Long and Alton came up short today, but they're still talented wrestlers capable of making deep runs in a tournament. (Wade might also fit the bill there, but frankly I haven't seen a single heavyweight this year that's been hugely impressive, so I don't know what to make of that division.) Wright too could wind up being a force if he can ever stop doing his drummer from Def Leppard impression out there on the mat. That's a lot of firepower. And they already have some tournament bona fides -- they won the Southern Scuffle, a tournament that had many of the best wrestlers who weren't at Midlands (a tournament where Iowa famously crashed and burned to a disappointing fourth-place finish).
There's no question that Iowa's wrestling better now than they were a month ago, when the Midlands mishap occurred, but there's also no way of knowing how they'll respond to the peculiar pressures of tournament situations until they're inside that crucible again. McDonough seems like an obvious choice to go deep at a tournament. Probably Marion, too, on the basis of his NCAA runner-up finish last year and his sensational 2011 debut yesterday. Outside of them, though? Ramos, Gambrall, and Lofthouse the Younger have been looking better lately. Mark Ballweg might be the third or fourth best wrestler on the team -- but he seems stuck behind the second best wrestler on the team and may have to wrestle up a weight the rest of the year. Lofthouse the Elder is good enough to pummel lesser guys, but still struggles against top contenders. St. John is still a little inscrutable. And Blake is Blake. This is still a team with a lot of question marks come March. But it is a team that's improving as the season (and that could get better still) and it's a team coming off an impressive win over a very good Penn State team. Right now that's pretty good -- and we'll take it.
A few other thoughts:
125: The value of having a guy like McDonough be able to lead off dual meets is tremendous, especially when he's in a pinning mood the way he is now (pins in three straight matches and four of his last five).
133: An impressive win by Ramos over Long (who's working on his own Cael-like streak of futility against Iowa: he's 0-5 against Iowa wrestlers now after going 0-4 against McDonough last year). The takedown that proved decisive was lovely and he was able to get deep on a few other shots; he also did a great job of escaping sticky situations when Long got deep on a few of his own shots.
141: Wow. After an opening period that went from quiet to disastrous by giving up a five-point move on a really slick takedown by Alton, Marion completely turned things around in the second and third periods. Judging by this match, he's been doing little but drilling takedowns and working cardio during his suspension. He looked like he could go another seven minutes at the end of the match and he worked some beautiful takedowns on Alton. This was one hell of an emphatic return for Marion and he should be a big boost to Iowa's lineup going forward.
149: With Marion's return, it looks like the Iowa lineup is once again a one-Ballweg party, although in a bit of a surprise it's Ballweg the Younger manning the 149 spot and not Matt Ballweg. Ballweg was clearly undersized, but he showed great tenacity against Molinaro and got in fairly deep on a few of his shots; with a little more size and strength he might have been able to finish them. It's hard to say what he might be able to do the rest of the season at 149, but the good news is he probably won't see anyone better than Molinaro (until the NCAA Tournament, anyway) and he looked more promising than any other option we've seen at this weight so far. It's hard to envision either Matt Ballweg or Jeret Chiri preventing Molinaro from getting bonus points.
157: A challenging weekend for DSJ ended in a split, with a win over one top-ten guy (jNW's Welch) on Friday and a decisive loss to another one (Taylor) today. On one hand, there's no shame in losing to Taylor right now: he's wrestling at an exceptionally high level. On the other hand, it clearly showed how much work DSJ has to do to get near the top of this division. His bad habit of letting guys in on his legs reared its ugly head again this weekend and while Welch couldn't make him pay, Taylor did -- over and over and over. DSJ's getting better, but he still has a lot of things to improve on.
165: More business as usual from Janssen. He won in a match he was expected to win; maybe that'll have to be enough for now.
174: Like DSJ, Lofthouse had the misfortune of running into an absolute buzzsaw yesterday. Now we have a better idea of what opponents felt like when they took on Metcalf or Borschel or McD. Ruth is a really good, really funky, really slick wrestler and Lofthouse didn't have many answers for his skill or his speed. On the other hand, he was able to fight off some shots and he did keep things to a decision, so it was hardly a failure. But this was a measuring stick match and the only thing that's really clear is that Lofthouse still has some distance to make up.
184: A solid win for Gambrall, even if it did come against a one-armed man (alert Dr. Richard Kimball!). To be fair, Wright's shoulder has been a problem for a while and he's still racked up some wins, so Gambrall deserves some credit for being able to ride Wright as hard as he did. It still would have been nice to see him push for a few more points, but for now Gambrall is looking solid. After his flameout at Midlads, that's progress.
197: Another overmatched opponent, another lopsided win for "The Leg." It's hard not to like Lofthouse the Elder: he's far from the most naturally talented wrestler, but he's a scrapper and he always goes hard (as he did yesterday, in racking up takedown after takedown to lock up a major decision win). Now if he could just finish a few of his takedowns against top competition...
HWT: So much for the all-new, all-different, all-attacking Blake Rasing. It was nice while it lasted. And, again, if he'd just attacked for a few minutes as hard as he did in the match's final thirty seconds, he might have pulled out a win here. Maybe next time.
NEXT: Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Friday, February 4th, 7pm CST (VIDEO: bigtennetwork.com; $$$/AUDIO: KXIC)