Still On Top: #2 Iowa Wrestling Beats #5 Minnesota, 19-12

Uncle_luke2_medium 
Yeah, this isn't from the Minnesota dual; pictures are scarce -- sorry. 
(Original photo credit: Matthew Holst, Press-Citizen)

The weather outside in Minneapolis was frightful, but the result of the Iowa-Minnesota wrestling dual in Williams Arena was quite delightful -- assuming you were an Iowa fan, at least.  This win was significant for a lot of reasons:

* It enabled Iowa to run their unbeaten streak to 77 consecutive matches (and more about that below)
* It clinched the regular season Big Ten title for the fourth straight season
* it also clinched their fourth straight 8-0 season in Big Ten duals
* and it was their sixth straight win over Minnesota (which is always sweet) and allowed us to keep the "Governor's Belt" that goes to the winner of the "Border Brawl" (even if we've kinda misplaced the actual belt)

Like most duals this year, Iowa got off to a hot start, opening up a 9-0 lead after the first three matches.  That's the benefit of having your best wrestlers front-loaded at the lower weights.  The downside is that if those wrestlers don't stake you to a big enough lead early, you can be vulnerable to a late collapse.  That's almost exactly what happened to Iowa yesterday -- after winning four of the first five matches and opening up a 13-3 lead, Iowa promptly lost the next three matches and led only 13-12 going into the final two matches, two matches where the Iowa wrestler was the underdog.  In fact, if you had told me before the season that the result in a meet (and, consequently, Iowa's impressive unbeaten streak) was going to come down to needing a win from either Luke Lofthouse or Blake Rasing... well, I probably would have sworn and lamented the end of the streak.  Instead, both guys won their matches against favored opponents and serve as living embodiments of the immense improvement that's been made over the course of the season by this rebuilding Iowa squad.  


#2 Iowa 19, #5 Minnesota 12

125: #1 Matt McDonough DEC (10-3) #5 Zach Sanders (Iowa, 3-0)
133: #7
Tony Ramos DEC (7-3) #20 David Thorn (Iowa, 6-0)
141: #3
Montell Marion DEC (4-3) #2 Mike Thorn (Iowa, 9-0)
149:
Danny Zilverberg DEC (5-3 OT) Mark Ballweg (Iowa, 9-3)
157: #7
Derek St. John MAJ DEC (20-8) Matt Mincey (Iowa, 13-3)
165: #12
Cody Yohn DEC (6-4) #13 Aaron Janssen (Iowa, 13-6)
174: #15
Scott Glasser DEC (7-5) #11 Ethen Lofthouse (Iowa, 13-9)
184: #8
Kevin Steinhaus DEC (5-4) #11 Grant Gambrall (Iowa, 13-12)
197: #8
Luke Lofthouse DEC (7-4) #4 Sonny Yohn (Iowa, 16-12)
HWT: #15
Blake Rasing DEC (4-2) #8 Tony Nelson (Iowa, 19-12)

About the streak... "77-meet unbeaten streak" doesn't have quite the same cache that "XX-meet winning streak" has, but it's still mighty impressive -- and it could get more impressive yet, since they're inching closer and closer to an NCAA record.  As Andy Hamilton noted in his pre-meet preview, J Robinson was well aware of the state of Iowa's current streak:

Iowa has won 31 consecutive conference duals since losing to the Gophers in 2007. The Hawkeyes have a string of 76 consecutive duals without a defeat — a run that has Robinson’s attention for various reasons.

Oklahoma State holds the NCAA record for the longest unbeaten streak at 84. Robinson was a sophomore with the Cowboys in 1966 when that seven-year run without a defeat came to an end.

"If we don’t beat them," Robinson said, "there’s nobody that’s going to be on their schedule in the first eight duals of (next) year that’s going to beat them. It’s another fun thing to draw into it."

Eight more dual meet wins and Iowa will have that record -- and Tom Brands will have accomplished something as Iowa head coach that even Dan Gable never could.  And Robinson (probably) wasn't exactly wrong about Minnesota being the biggest remaining hurdle in Iowa's path, either.  Iowa's first eight duals this season were Iowa Central, Coe, Chattanooga, Cornell College, Iowa State, Michigan State, UNI, and SIU-Edwardsville.  If Iowa schedules a comparable slate in 2011-2012 (and they haven't varied much from that formula under Brands; they usually start fairly easy, face the in-state competition, then go to Midlands and National Duals before taking on Okie State and getting into the thick of Big Ten competition), the record looks very much in reach.  Even if the SIU-Edwardsville meet is replaced with a first-round opponent in the National Duals, the challenge looks very manageable, with Iowa State and Doug Schwab's improving UNI squad looking like the only potential bumps in the road.  There will be plenty of time to talk about this next year, but it's an interesting note to file away for later -- getting that record would be a great accomplishment and one hell of a testament to the program that Brands has built at Iowa.

Weight-by-weight breakdown:

125: It was sad to see McD's six-match pinning streak come to an end, but it was always going to be a tall order against Sanders.  He's not ranked in the top five for his charming personality and his dazzling smile.  In fact, he's never been pinned once in his three-year career.  As it is, the 10-3 decision was still the most lopsided defeat he's suffered all year (although he also hasn't faced the other two top guys at 125, jNW's Brandon Precin and Arizona State's Anthony Robles).  He was determined to follow the blueprint Precin laid out to slow down McD -- grab an arm and the neck and hold on for dear life -- and it worked OK for the better part of two periods.  But either his defense isn't as rock-solid as Precin's or McD has devised new solutions to that problem or Sanders just ran out of gas (or some combination thereof), because McD was able to pour it on in the third and almost get the major decision win.  But still a very solid win for McD.

133: As Ramos noted in one of the preview stories for this meet, he and David Thorn go way back, all the way to their freshman year of high school in Illinois.  They had a slew of battles during their prep career and it looks like they're poised to have a bunch more at the NCAA level now (unless Ramos and McD swap places in the lineup next year, which is a definite possibility).  Thorn is a feisty opponent, but as Ramos said in his post-match interview, he just needs to attack more and get to his offense sooner.  Not many guys at 133 have shown the ability to keep up with him for an entire match.

141: For the second straight dual, Montell Marion took on a top-ranked opponent and for the second straight time it came down to an escape late in the third period.  Against Michigan's Kellen Russell a week ago, Marion couldn't get that crucial escape after giving up a third-period takedown and wound up losing in overtime.  Against Mike Thorn this week, Marion scooted out with just two seconds to spare, clinching a vital win over a top guy.  As I expected, this match wasn't quite the wild, offensive free-for-all that their matches last year were; both guys are older and more cautious this year and were hellbent on avoiding any major errors. 

That said, it still seems like Marion needs to commit to his offense a bit earlier; he's had some really slick takedowns on both Thorn and Russell (and he may have gotten jobbed on some nearfall points with his fireman carry takedown on Thorn) that neither guy seemed even close to stopping -- one or two more of those in a match and he won't need to worry about getting a late escape to win those matches.  There might also be a little concern about his gas tank after giving up takedowns late in the third period the last two matches and that's a valid concern -- we'll have to see how he handles the grind at the Big Ten Tournament in a few weeks.

149: It's impossible not to admire Mark Ballweg's tenacious effort while wrestling up a weight.  After getting utterly manhandled a week ago in the Michigan dual, there was real concern that this might be a weight where Minnesota could get bonus points (even though their wrestler at this weight, Danny Zilverberg, wasn't any great shakes himself), but Ballweg made sure that was never an option -- and he came damn close to winning the match himself if only he, like Marion, had been able to get that last-second escape.  The size difference that characterizes most of Mark's matches at 149 seems to be most problematic when he's on the bottom; he has a damn hard time getting out from underneath.  From a strategic standpoint, it might make sense for him to avoid taking bottom -- usually you want to try and get that (relatively easy) escape point, but he's having so much difficulty (and giving up so much riding time) that it might be better for him to just stay neutral and attack from his feet. 

157: DSJ looked bad early, getting easily dumped to the mat by a guy wrestling up not one but two weights, but that seemed to just piss him off, because he was a takedown machine from that point forward.  The second and third periods of this match were an absolute takedown clinic, with DSJ just doing whatever he wanted to take down Mincey.  All in all, a very solid performance from DSJ, who clearly looks like the second-best guy at 157 in the Big Ten right now.  The bonus point he picked up with the major decision wound up not being essential to victory, but it was good to see him get it anyway.  Early in the season he had a tendency to just coast through some matches, but lately he's been much better about constantly attacking and going for bonus points.

165: And here was where things started going badly for Iowa and where the dual meet began to slip from their grasp.  The problem here seemed like a flaw in strategy as much as a flaw in execution from Janssen; taking bottom in the second round seemed like a dubious idea at the time, considering Janssen's problems underneath against good riders and Yohn's own ability to be a beast on top.  It only got worse when Yohn was able to tilt him and get nearfall points that effectively sealed up the match.  Janssen did a nice job attacking from his feet in the third period and he didn't seem to gas, but that terrible miscue in the second period really ended up killing him here.  The coaches deserve at least some of the blame here because Janssen looked over to them and got confirmation from them before taking down in the second period; if they meet in the future, let's not have Janssen do that.

174: While almost everyone else on the Iowa roster has made steady improvement over the course of the year and is wrestling much (much) better now than they were a month or two ago, there are a few wrestlers who appear stuck in neutral at times and whose improvements have come in fits and starts.  Ethen Lofthouse is one of those guys.  Since picking up a nice win over Oklahoma State's Mike Benefiel at that dual, Ethen's gone 3-3 against Big Ten opposition.  Two of the losses came to foes ranked higher than him (PSU's Ed Ruth and Purdue's Luke Manuel) and yesterday's loss to Glasser was the only loss to an opponent ranked lower than him, but he also hasn't beaten anyone higher-ranked than him in that span and Ruth was the only elite opponent he's faced.  His inconsistency is maddening. 

More troubling is the way he's been losing matches, which is by fading late and giving up far too many points in the third period.  He wrestled great for two periods yesterday (and rode Glasser really well), but then things fell apart in the third when a sloppy attack from him turned into a big scoring opportunity for Glasser.  Whether he's just physically gassing out or he's just lacking the confidence to finish close matches, he needs to get it figured out in a hurry because Iowa could really use a few points from him at the upcoming tournaments.

184: Speaking of wrestlers who are frustrating to watch and whose improvement has been hard to see... Gambrall is another who it's hard to have much faith in during the upcoming tournaments.  He has the talent to hang with pretty much anyone at his weight, but his propensity for late-match vanishing acts seems certain to doom him to some early exits.  I don't know if he's dealing with a bug or an injury or what, but his cardio seems noticeably worse than most of the other guys on the team; McD and Ramos step off the mat looking like they could go another ten minutes, while Gambrall looks like you might need a giant spatula to get him to the back sometimes.  His fatigue (obviously) gives him the most trouble in third periods; most of the time he's been able to hold on for dear life and eke out a close win, but sometimes that doesn't work and it didn't work yesterday against an opponent as tenacious as Steinhaus. 

And, frankly, if I could swap wrestlers with Minnesota at any weight, Steinhaus is the one I'd take hands down -- Gambrall is so frustrating to watch, while Steinhaus is an "attack, attack, attack" guy right out of the Iowa mold.  It was gutting to see Iowa losing matches in the same way they've made a habit out of beating people over the years -- by wearing them down and getting points late in the third period.  Getting beat at your own game is never fun.  Also, this match had some downright... peculiar officiating.  I've never, ever seen a guy get hit for stalling five seconds into a period before.

197: Ah, Uncle Luke... undoubtedly the man of the match after his sterling efforts yesterday.  Iowa's prospects of winning the meet and continuing their gaudy unbeaten streak were starting to look grim after the three straight losses at 165, 174, and 184 and with higher-ranked foes looming at 197 and HWT.  All credit to Lofthouse for turning the tide of momentum in the dual and getting the win that all but assured victory.  That he did it against a guy he'd never beaten before -- and that he'd never really been close with, in fact -- just makes it even more impressive.  But Uncle Luke has made a habit this year out of doing things he'd never done before and in shushing his doubters and naysayers.  The win over Yohn was his third win over a ranked opponent in his last four matches (and it might have been four-for-four if Purdue's Logan Brown hadn't mysteriously sat out his match with Luke a few weeks ago); he's really coming on strong and there's no better time of the year for it to happen. 

He's gone from a guy who was a fringe All-American candidate to a guy we might be able to expect a deep run from and -- who knows? -- maybe even a spot in the finals.  To be fair, he got a bit of an advantage in the match when Yohn tweaked his knee, but at the same time, them's the breaks, especially for a guy still working his way back into action after a long injury layoff.  Lofthouse also had a strong gameplan designed to take advantage of Yohn's sketchy cardio and it paid off in a big way.  There aren't many better stories right now than Uncle Luke's surge through the ranks at 197; long may the Stormin' Mormon ride.

HWT: After Lofthouse's big win at 197, a win at HWT was no longer critical -- Rasing just needed to avoid losing by anything more than a decision for Iowa to pick up the win in the meet -- but it was very nice to see him still wrestling hard and fighting for the win.  A win which he, indeed, got after scoring the match's only takedown. The win was his second-straight against a higher-ranked opponent and it suggests that maybe he really is turning the corner and turning into a more reliable option at heavyweight.  His massive size makes him a difficult matchup for a lot of opponents and lately he's been able to get to his own offense much more often and more reliably, which is excellent.  With Lofthouse the Younger and Gambrall turning into question marks late in the season, it's a big relief to see Uncle Luke and Rasing picking up the slack and improving and turning into more reliable options.

NEXT: The Big Ten Tournament in two weeks (March 5-6).  I'll have plenty of preview thoughts about that coming up.

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