After a few years of setting positive records when it came to dual meet competition, lately the shoe is on the other foot for Iowa wrestling. Two consecutive dual meet losses? Check -- for the first time since 2006. (Despite what WHO TV says, it is not three consecutive losses; their opponents in their last dual meet win might have been just Northwestern on January 15, but it was still a dual meet and Iowa's win over them still counts.) Their first loss to a team featuring Cael Sanderson as a wrestler or head coach? Check. So much for extending Cael's personal streak of futility against Iowa to 0-10. The streaks are dead. Time to bury them and get started on making new winning streaks.
The truth is that Iowa wrestling has spoiled us. The sheer level of dominance that Gable brought to the program in the 80s and 90s and that Brands re-established in the threepeat years of 2008-2010 has left us satisfied by only the highest level of success. That's not to suggest that a three-loss season (as this one currently is) can (or should) somehow be viewed as a success -- it's just a reminder that it's not the end of the world, either. We expected this would be a year in which we could reclaim the national championship, but that now looks unlikely -- which is disappointing. But it's a reminder of how fragile championship seasons are and how much has to go right in order for them to happen. Youth is not an excuse -- Penn State won last year on the backs of freshmen and sophomores -- but there's no denying that youth makes winning more difficult. Not every freshman bursts onto the scene as ready to dominate as David Taylor or Ed Ruth (and, frankly, it's not as though Iowa has been utterly incapable of having freshmen be high achievers in recent years -- two years ago, Matt McDonough was a national champion and a year ago Derek St. John finished in 4th place at the NCAA Tournament; expecting every freshman to wrestle as well as them is not exactly fair).
#1 Penn State (8-1, 4-1) 22, #4 Iowa (9-3, 4-2) 12
125: #2 Matt McDonough DEC (3-1 SV) #8 Nico Megaludis (Iowa 3-0)
133: #2 Tony Ramos FALL (4:20) Frank Martellotti (Iowa 9-0)
141: #3 Montell Marion DEC (7-3) Bryan Pearsall (Iowa 12-0)
149: #1 Frank Molinaro DEC (11-5) Mike Kelly (Iowa 12-3)
157: #8 Dylan Alton DEC (5-3) Nick Moore (Iowa 12-6)
165: #1 David Taylor DEC (9-4) #6 Mike Evans (Iowa 12-9)
174: #2 Ed Ruth MAJ DEC (10-1) #9 Ethen Lofthouse (Penn State 13-12)
184: #2 Quentin Wright DEC (8-2) Vinnie Wagner (Penn State 16-12)
197: #12 Morgan McIntosh DEC (5-3 SV) Grant Gambrall (Penn State 19-12)
HWT: #6 Cameron Wade DEC (4-0) Blake Rasing (Penn State 22-12)
No one likes to trot out "youth" and "injuries" as "excuses" to explain poor performances, but they can't be brushed aside, either. The issue of injuries is particularly salient because some injuries truly do matter more than others. In truth, there's been a steady stream of injuries since last summer that have chipped away at Iowa's ability to field a genuine national title contender. Having Grant Gambrall lose an entire off-season to concussion-related issues was a big blow to this team, considering he was a 3rd-place finisher at the NCAA Tournament a year ago and a guy we were counting on to be an All-American again this season. Having Derek St. John suffer a nasty-looking knee injury in a dual meet against UNI in early Decemebr was another big blow to this team, since he was a guy had a legitimate chance of being an NCAA finalist this year. That's two potential All-Americans -- two guys with great potential to finish high on the podium -- who are either incapacitated or wrestling at a diminished level this year.
You don't think Penn State's chances of repeating would be hurt if Ed Ruth and Frank Molinaro were in the same boat? Or that Oklahoma State's title push would be severely dented by severe injuries to Jamal Parks and the Mad Russian? It would be one thing if these injuries had happened to, say, Vinnie Wagner or Tomas Lira -- very little was expected of them come NCAA Tournament time. But to have major point-scorers be sidelined like this... it's crippling. And this doesn't even touch upon the absences of guys like Dylan Carew (by most accounts head and shoulders better than anyone else we have at 149) or Cayle Byers (who never quite made it to Iowa). Simply put, the team we imagined having last spring is not the team we've ended up having this season.
Which is not to say there haven't also been some disappointments among the guys who have been healthy and competing this season. Weight-by-weight thoughts below.
125: I suppose, by virtue of being the only Iowa wrestler to post an undefeated 2-0 mark this weekend, that McD earns "wrestler of the weekend" honors. Mind you, it's a pretty hollow distinction, given that Iowa lost both meets and McD was at anything but his best in scrappy, low-scoring decision victories. The unfortunate reality is that opponents have figured out an effective gameplan for stymieing McD -- go low and hug the mat, hang on to his arm for dear life, and block off (or stall, to be less charitable) as much as possible. It's unpleassant to watch (and, to his credit, Megaludis was far more active in this style than Dijulius was on Friday night) but it's undeniably effective. Should the refs be dinging his opponents for stalling more? Yes, probably. But McD isn't helping his case by attacking opponents in such a limited fashion right now -- he needs to work on his offensive arsenal and develop different methods of attack to get at opponents who are denying him his bread-and-butter offense. I never thought he was in danger of losing either of his matches this weekend -- even in the OT match with Megaludis, Nico was never really that close to scoring on McD -- but it's going to be tough to see the dominant McD again until he has some more diverse attacks to fall back on.
133: Ramos had a bitterly disappointing loss to Stieber on Friday night (I would guess he might twice about taking down against him in their next meeting), but rebounded with an impressive and dominating pin over the overmatched Martellotti. We needed bonus points out of the first three matches to have any hope of winning this dual and Ramos came through for us in full on that account; we certainly can't blame Tony for our dual meet losses to Oklahoma State and Penn State. There are still things Tony needs to work on (namely, his mat wrestling, both in terms of riding guys and escaping from guys), but he's still a better wrestler than he was a year ago and he's still wrestling at a very high level this year.
141: A mostly forgettable weekend for Marion; he had the disappointing loss to the other Stieber on Friday and then could get only a decision win over Pearsall yesterday. Friday's match was an unpleasant return to the more lackluster Marion that we've seen too often this season. Sunday saw a better Marion, particularly early on, but his inability to finish more of his shots and to allow Pearsall to get him into stalemate situations crippled Iowa's chances of getting bonus points out of this match. Marion wasn't bad at all on Sunday, but he also wasn't as good as he can be and it's frustrating to see him still being so inconsistent.
149: Another 0-2 weekend for Mike Kelly who continues to unfortunately prove that simply being tough will only take you so far. Like Marion (and several other Iowa wrestlers), Kelly wrestled better on Sunday than he did on Friday and I was impressed that he was able to hold his loss to the Tank to a decision. In fact, he had the match as close as 7-5 in the third period before an escape and a quick takedown (and a mountain of riding time) gave Molinaro the final victory margin. (That said, if PSU fans want to lament the lack of a major decision here they should look at Molinaro, who spent much of the first period just laying on Kelly; Kelly had little defense for Molinaro's explosive takedown attempts for most of the match, so it might have behooved Frank to go for a few more of those if he wanted to secure bonus points.)
157: I'm well aware that Nick Moore is only wrestling here out of necessity, but given how bad Derek St. John looked on Friday, it looks as if Moore will still be here for a while yet -- which is a concern, given how ineffective he's been so far at this weight. Of all the freshmen who are struggling this year, Nick Moore's struggles perplex me the most; he was a 4-time state champion in Iowa and arrived at Iowa with a mountain of accolades and recruiting hype -- he seemed as good a bet as anyone in the last few recruiting classes to be able to step right in and perform at a high level. Instead he's gone just 7-6 since taking over for DSJ in the lineup at Midlands, with most of those wins coming against overmatched opponents at the Midlands. He's gone 1-4 in dual meets so far. Some hiccups could have been expected as a first-time starter, but the most frustrating thing to see has been the lack of improvement from him over the course of the last month: he still struggles to finish his shots on his feet and he still gives up his own legs to his opponents far too easily. His past success clearly suggests that he has talent, but right now it's not exactly manifesting itself on the mat.
165: Evans had an 0-2 weekend, but the real disappointment was his loss on Friday to an unranked OSU wrestler. Losing to Taylor, the top-ranked guy at 165 and the prohibitive national favorite, is no great shakes, especially since he didn't get dominated. He (predictably) got tripped up by a few of Taylor's lightning-quick ankle picks and struggled to get much of his own offense going, but he defended well at times and didn't look terribly intimidated by Evans, despite his stature and the hostile environment. As far as losses go, losing to Taylor 9-4 isn't bad at all. I'll be curious to see how a potential rematch would play out. Hopefully he can erase the bad taste of this weekend and get back on the winning path next weekend.
174: Lofthouse seemed like one of the few Iowa wrestlers to emerge from the OSU pratfall with a positive review, since at first we thought he had scored a decisive win over Nick Heflin, a top-ten opponent. That win lost a lot of shine when we found out that it wasn't Heflin -- he had bumped up to 184 to cover for an injured wrestler there -- and that he had just beaten a less-renowned backup at 174. It was still a solid performance (although not quite as dominant as it could/should have been, given the caliber of opposition), but not a standout one at all. But whatever goodwill he got from that win was thoroughly flushed away by his stinkbomb against Ruth when he was deservedly dinged for stalling three times. He did nothing for seven minutes but try not to get pinned by Ruth. There's no doubt that Ruth has gotten better since last year (it seems almost laughable today that Ruth beat him just 3-2 at Big Ten a year ago), but Lofthouse's showing here was really deplorable. Of all the returning wrestlers from a year ago, Lofthouse has shown perhaps the least improvement, which is concerning. He really needs to get it in gear.
184: If effort was the only thing that mattered, Wagner would be a national champion, no problem. Alas, toughness, grit, and "A for effort" only take you so far -- skill is also a part of the bargain and, sadly, Vinnie is a little lacking in that regard, especially against a guy like Wright. That said, he held his own fairly well and did well to not get pinned (or concede any bonus points at all) against Wright, who is very slick.
197: The good news is that Gambrall looked better in both of his matches this weekend, taking far more shots than he had in previous matches (and, glory be, actually completing a few of them as well) and not looking as gassed and lethargic as he had earlier in the season. The bad news is that he still lost to a pair of true freshmen, still looked outhorsed, and still had too much trouble riding guys or finishing his shots. But within the very narrow context of the last month or so, I thought he looked better than he had at any other point. Hopefully he can build off that. (And I'm tired of talking about the 184/197 issue with him. It's beating a dead horse at this point. We can revisit it in the offseason and next year, if necessary, but for now it is what it is: Gambrall is staying at 197. Even if he wanted to move down to 184, weight-cut rules would prevent him from seeing the match there until at least National Duals and maybe not until the Big Ten Tournament; I am 99% certain the "Gambrall at 184" ship has sailed for this season.)
HWT: As I suspected on Friday, Bobby Telford got benched after four straight losses (and four straight tentative, unimpressive performances), giving Blake Rasing a chance to prove himself again. Two matches later and, well, I don't think he exactly locked down the starting spot. He started brightly with an early takedown in the OSU match, but things stalled out after that and he wasn't able to do anything against Wade on Sunday. Telford is still the future at this weight and, frankly, it's probably better to just let him take his lumps and try to improve the rest of the season; hopefully getting benched will give him the fire to snap out of his funk.
NEXT: Iowa entertains #4 Minnesota at 3pm on Sunday, January 29; this meet is also LIVE on BTN.