Stillwater: where dreams -- and undefeated seasons -- go to die.
#2 Oklahoma State 18, #4 Iowa 12
Iowa won four of the first five matches in Sunday's dual meet against #2 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, OK; unfortunately, they won none of the remaining five matches, which is why they lost the meet, 18-12. I expected it to be a close dual -- before the meet, I noted that according to the rankings, Iowa would be favored in five matches and Oklahoma State would be favored in five matches. The deciding factors in the meet were going to be bonus points and upsets. Well, there were no bonus points for anyone -- all ten matches were straight decisions -- but the lone upset (Chionuma over Lofthouse at 184) went in Oklahoma State's favor.
It was another frustrating performance for Iowa, a performance largely devoid of the aggression and attacking mindset that has defined Iowa wrestling for decades. One: that's the number of takedowns Iowa had in the final five matches, and that lone takedown came from Mike Evans in the final seconds of his match with Chris Perry (when Perry knew that a takedown couldn't really hurt him). To be sure, Iowa was the underdog in four of those five matches and their opponents were very good (four of those five were ranked 5th or better) and it's not as though they were blown out or outclassed by the 'Pokes -- four of those five losses were by just one point. There was also controversy and close calls in several of those matches -- Caldwell got a controversial takedown call late in his match with Moore, while Moore was denied a possible reversal call that could have sent the match to overtime; Burak was very close to securing a late, match-winning takedown on Rosholt before Rosholt was able to get behing him and get the winning takedown for himself -- so it's certainly not out of the question that Iowa might prevail in a rematch of these two teams. And, no, Iowa doesn't need to be wrestling their best in a dual meet in January -- they need to be wrestling their best in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments in March.
And yet... it wasn't so long ago that Iowa could wrestle well in January and March. It wasn't so long ago that Iowa had a team (mostly) full of guys who looked to go out and push the pace, score points, and reach for dominance. This team has too many guys who are content to wait for an opponent to screw up, or two try and win a low-scoring match. This team also just isn't good at a lot of the details that go into greatness -- they struggle to score points late in periods when an extra takedown could make it easier to crush an opponent's spirit and get bonus points for the team; they struggle to ride opponents from top position (even good riders, like McDonough, St. John, and Evans, have struggled to dominate guys, or even keep them down, this season); they struggle to escape opponents from bottom position; they struggle to take shots and, when they do take shots, they struggle to use a variety of attacks, which makes their shots easier to defend; and so forth.
This is a frustrating team to watch. The talent seems to be there at most weights -- I don't think Iowa is rolling out any guys who are totally outmatched at any spot this year -- but it just isn't manifesting itself on the mat. I suppose some of the blame for that has to fall on Tom Brands & Co. -- he doesn't figuring out how to reach these guys as well as he has other guys in the past -- but I also don't think he's forgotten how to coach or anything like that.
But perhaps this is something of an overreaction to a close loss against a very good opponent. Tony Ramos' slow-paced, defensive match against Morrison was very uncharacteristic of his usual approach and probably not a harbinger of things to come from him. (Morrison is an opponent Ramos wrestled frequently in the high school ranks, so there was certainly some familiarity between them before this match, their first encounter at the college level; it's worth noting that the same was true of Ramos and Minnesota's Chris Dardanes, and Ramos steadily increased the margin of victory in those matches last year.) Ballweg wasn't able to get bonus points, but he pretty well dominated his opponent and made sure there would be no upset from OSU there. He continues to put together a very solid season. St. John didn't get bonus points, but he had a very solid, convincing win against a top-10 wrestler. (He also got Iowa's only back points of the event, if memory serves.) Mike Kelly avoided getting majored by Jordan Oliver and though that's not something we typically celebrate at Iowa, when the opponent is of the quality of Oliver, that's actually a pretty impressive feat. (Moreover, Kelly didn't look too intimidated by the opponent or the environment; he pushed for a few takedowns himself and wasn't just ultra-defensive and praying to avoid bonus points.) Moore and Burak took two top-5 opponents to the very limit and were achingly close to winning their matches (or at least sending them to overtime). Evans learned where he stood in relation to the top dog at 174 and while he's not quite on Perry's level yet... he's also not that far off.
There were still some worrying signs, though. McDonough and Brands can say what they want about him being fine, but he still doesn't look right. I'm not sure if there's an undisclosed injury, a weight-cutting issue, or if he's still trying to battle the flu, but he does not look like the same dominant McDonough we've come to know and love over the past three seasons. There's still plenty of time for him to "get right," so I'm not hugely concerned... but it would be nice to see it sooner rather than later. Moore was close against the #3 opponent in the country, but his lack of aggression on offense is maddening; I never dreamed that bringing in Ryan Morningstar as a coach would lead to Nick Moore transforming into Mini-Morningstar (albeit with slightly worse defense).
The struggles for Lofthouse and Telford were probably the most concerning. Both were All-Americans a year ago and we were expecting them to match those results (5th for Telford, 7th for Lofthouse) at the very least -- in fact, we were counting on that in order to have any hope of catching Penn State for the national title -- but on current form they'd be damn fortunate to make it past the Round of 12. And, yes yes, there's plenty of time, things can turn around, etc. ... but it's not as if the problems they're having now are new problems. They've always tended to be overly conservative on offense and prone to getting beat by opponents who can actually score that decisive takedown (especially quicker opponents). Both guys are also competing in deeper, more challenging weights this season, which doesn't bode well for their 2013 All-America hopes, unless they can start wrestling much better over the next few months. There's no real shame in Telford losing to Gelogaev -- the Mad Russian will certainly be a strong NCAA title contender if he's healthy in March -- but he looked the same against Gelogaev as he did against Ohio State's Peter Capone and (in some ways) against Purdue's Alex White, two guys who don't figure to be near the podium in March. Chionuma is a solid wrestler and could be a fringe All-America contender, but that's exactly the sort of guy that Lofthouse will need to beat if he wants to make the podium himself.
Maybe all this gnashing of teeth is much ado about nothing. Maybe Iowa will shake this loss off -- or, better yet, use it to finally fire them the hell up -- and come out like the team of aggressive, take-no-prisoners ass-kickers we want them to be. That's my hope anyway. We'll see what the next few dual meets have to say in that regard.
NEXT: Iowa's road tripping continues with a trip to Ann Arbor to take on #11 Michigan on Friday and to East Lansing to take on unranked Michigan State on Sunday. Previews to come later in the week.
Also, a big ol' T/F/J to Friend of the Pants Sam C. (aka, Dip-Shit), an Iowa fan trapped in Sooner (and 'Poke) Country, who attended the dual on Sunday and provided the video and photos found in this post. I also put his photos up on Flickr; let me know if this link doesn't work. Thanks, Sam!