#1 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) vs. #3 Iowa (15-1, 5-0)
For the first time in almost a month, the Iowa wrestling team will take the mat surrounded by the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena -- and thousands of screaming Hawkeye fans. (Their last home dual meet was a 29-9 win over Purdue on January 6.) Their guest for this dual? Oh, just the #1-ranked, two-time defending national champion Penn State Nittany Lions, still led by the familiar face of Cael Sanderson. Yeah, this is kind of a big deal. (Fran's resuscitation efforts on the Iowa basketball program have largely ended the days of Iowa wrestling meets outdrawing men's basketball games in Iowa City, but this dual seems like one of the few where that might not yet be true. We'll have to see what the attendance figures are for Thursday's basketball game and this dual.)
A year ago, Iowa lost to Penn State in a dual meet in State College, one of three dual meets they lost in the regular season last year. That 22-12 win was Cael Sanderson's first team win over Iowa ever. (As both competitor and coach, his Iowa State teams had always lost to Iowa, and his first few Penn State teams continued that inglorious tradition.) So he got the "can't beat Iowa" monkey off his back last season; Friday night he tries to kill the "can't win in CHA" monkey. Naturally, we hope he fails.
If ever there was a time for the CHA crowd to be raucous and energetic, this dual would be it -- Penn State is a formidable foe and there are several matches in this meet where Iowa wrestlers will need to draw on every ounce of their abilities to take on their blue-and-white competitors. And yet... a win for Penn State is by no means assured. In many ways, this dual matches up better for Iowa than recent duals with Oklahoma State and Minnesota. Penn State is a terrifying tournament team, thanks to their ability to pick up enormous bonus point totals over the course of an entire tournament, but that ability is diminished in a dual meet setting.
125: On paper, this is the headline match of the dual. It's #1 vs. #2. It's a rematch of last year's NCAA Tournament Final at this weight. The winner of this match will have the advantage for securing the top seed at both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. McD and Nico met last year twice, in two nail-bitingly close matches. In the first match, at the dual meet, McD beat him 3-1 after grabbing a takedown in sudden victory. In the second match, at the aforementioned NCAA Tourney finals, McD beat him 4-1 to lock up his second national title. Both matches were incredibly tight, with Nico spending the bulk of both matches tying up McD's arms and blocking off (or, you know, stalling). McD has struggled at times this year -- he hasn't scored bonus points in his last five wins -- but I think he's been wrestling better lately. He gave up a takedown to Thorn last weekend, but only after narrowly missing a big move of his own. His conditioning looks better than it did earlier in the month and his offense has looked a bit sharper.
McD via DEC (IOWA 3-0)
133: Jordan Conaway scored a nice win over #5 Tyler Graff (Wisconsin) a few weeks ago, but that only happened because Graff gassed into a pile of goo in the third period. That isn't going to happen to Tony Ramos, especially not in front of a ravenous crowd at CHA. This is one of the few matches in the dual where Iowa has a decent shot at picking up bonus points and I think Ramos' ferocious motor will get it done, just barely.
Ramos via MAJ DEC (IOWA 7-0)
141: Pearsall is a solid wrestler, with a solid record (16-6), but he has little experience against top-20 competition this year. Ballweg has a close loss to #2 Hunter Stieber on his resume, as well as wins over #11 Nick Dardanes (Minnesota) and #17 Luke Vaith (Hofstra). Ballweg's offense is a little sketchy at times, but he's a good scrambler and I think he'll be energized by the CHA atmosphere to push the tempo in this match. None of Pearsall's six losses this year involved bonus points and I don't see Ballweg changing that trend.
Ballweg via DEC (IOWA 10-0)
149: The job for Mike Kelly (or Brody Grothus) in this match is simple (and the same as it was against Jordan Oliver and Dylan Ness): don't get pinned. Alton is a pinner (9 of his 18 wins this season have been via pinfall) so Kelly needs to stay off his back. The good news is that Kelly has done a solid job of avoiding pins against Oliver and Ness -- hell, he even managed to avoid giving up bonus points in those matches, which is impressive. Alton is a big move guy and has a questionable gas tank (he gassed against Nebraska's Jake Sueflohn last weekend and ended up getting pinned), so if Kelly can avoid the early flurry from Alton, I think he'll be able to keep this match close. I don't have any faith in him getting the win himself, but...
Alton via DEC (IOWA 10-3)
157: If 125 is the main event match of this dual, 157 might be the best match on the undercard, with #1 vs. #5 and a rematch from last year's Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Those match were virtual mirrors of each other: both finished 1-1 after regulation and in both DSJ came out on top with a takedown in sudden victory after a wild scramble. Of course, DSJ was effectively wrestling on one good leg then -- he's at full health right now. DSJ isn't a bonus point machine, but he's been rock-solid against ranked opponents this year: he blanked #3 Joey Napoli of Lehigh, 6-0, and handled #9 Alex Dieringer of Okie State, 8-4. This figures to be a close match, but I like St. John to be the guy who gets the decisive takedown(s).
St. John via DEC (IOWA 13-3)
165: Nick Moore, the reigning Big Ten Wrestler of the Week, is riding high right now: he's 5-1 in 2013, with two bonus point wins (should have been three with the near-major decision over Cody Yohn last week) and a narrow 3-2 decision loss to Okie State's Tyler Caldwell, #3 in the nation. Next up? Only the #2 wrestler in the country at 165 and the defending national champion... the Sainted Unicorn himself, David Taylor. Taylor's 17-1 this year; his only loss was to #1 Kyle Dake. Every single win has involved bonus points: 8 pins, 7 tech falls, 2 major decisions. Needless to say, this is a daunting match-up for young Mr. Moore. Just like Kelly at 149, the goal here is pretty simple: don't get pinned and give up as few bonus points as possible. The blueprint is there: Caldwell and Indiana's Ryan LeBlanc held Taylor to major decisions (10-0 and 8-0, respectively) and if you believe Moore's 3-2 loss to Caldwell means he's near that level, well, that should give us some hope. On the other hand, Moore's occasional flat-footendness bodes really poorly against a wrestler as quick and explosive as David Taylor and his lightning-strike ankle picks. A Moore win would probably be the upset of the year in college wrestling; a more realistic goal is just damage limitation. Can he hold the beatdown to a major decision? I think so... but it will be close (like 16-2 close, potentially).
Taylor via MAJ DEC (IOWA 13-7)
174: Another dual, another epic showdown at 174. 125 and 157 are the headline bouts of this dual, but 174 isn't far behind. The nation's -- and the Big Ten's -- most ridiculously deep divisions showcases another killer bout here, with #4 Brown facing #6 Evans. Evans has been achingly close to scoring a big-time win against a top guy at this weight (lost 4-3 to #1 Chris Perry and 4-3 to #2 Logan Storley; though he did beat then-#2 Nick Heflin 9-4 earlier in the season). To win this match, Evans needs to push the pace hard and try to wear Brown out (something Evans has done effectively in other matches, especially the Heflin bout) and he needs to ride better, especially at the start of a period. It's strange that a guy who's (justly) renowned as a ferocious rider has such a glaring weak spot in his top game, but that's the case here. Evans gave up an immediate reversal to Perry and an immediate escape to Storley when he started the period on top against both guys; obviously, those points ended up being very costly for The 'Stache. I think this is another match where home-cookin' comes into play. The CHA crowd loves Evans and I think they'll help him carry the day here.
Evans via DEC (IOWA 16-7)
184: Almost two years ago, Ethen Lofthouse was a semi-controversial call away from knocking off Ed Ruth in the semifinals at the Big Ten Tournament at 174. He ended up losing 3-2. Right now, that match feels like something that happened a million years ago. Lofthouse hang with Ruth? Ha. It's probably more instructive to look at their most recent match, a 10-1 Ruth win in the dual meet a year ago. Like Kelly and Moore, Lofthouse's primary objective in this match is to not get pinned. Ruth is a terrifying offensive wrestler at his best, a mind-melting combination of speed and power that overwhelms his hapless opponents. That said, he's had a few close calls this season: an 11-9 decision win over #3 Robert Hamlin, an 11-4 win over #7 Jimmy Sheptock, a 7-3 win over #4 Steve Bosak. Lofthouse, for all that he does to frustrate us (and the Brands Bros.) during a match, rarely gets blown out. The two worst losses of his career were that 10-1 loss to Ruth last year and an 11-2 loss to Iowa State's Jon Reader during EL's freshman year. That gives me some hope that Ethen can avoid an egregious beatdown here.
Ruth via MAJ DEC (IOWA 16-11)
197: Yet another match where we have to worry about an Iowa guy getting pinned; god, it's disgusting how many accomplished pinners Penn State has on their team (Yes, I am jelly. So jelly.) 8 of Q's 18 wins have been via pinfall, so it's imperative that Burak avoid big moves and avoid getting put on his back against Wright. If he gets in danger, Wright is certainly capable of finishing him off. That said, if Q doesn't get pins, he doesn't get a lot of bonus points -- of t hose remaining 10 wins, 7 were via decision (and one was a forfeit). He has just two major decisions on the season. If Burak can avoid the big move, I think he can keep this to a decision (something in the neighborhood of 8-2).
Wright via DEC (IOWA 16-14)
285: And so it all comes down to the shaved bear dance. Dammit. On paper, Telford is the better wrestler. He's the Big Ten finalist and the returning All-American. He's the one ranked in the top-10. And yet... he's also the wrestler who's lost three of his last four matches and would be the obvious pick for "Least Confident Wrestler on the Iowa team" if not for the presence of Ethen Lofthouse. And now we need to have Bobby come through in a pressure-packed, must-win situation at the end of a massive dual meet? Gulp. I consider this match a complete toss-up -- whoever gets the first takedown is probably going to win. Call me a homer, but I'm going to lean toward the crowd giving Bobby the energy and the confidence to get that takedown.
Telford via DEC (IOWA 19-14)
There you have it: an Iowa win, even with Taylor and Ruth picking up bonus points. The path for Iowa to win is clear-cut: win six of ten matches, limit Penn State's bonus points in their wins. Iowa can give up major decisions -- they can't give up pins. Obviously, they also can't afford upsets -- and they need a minor upset of their own at 174. They also need McD and DSJ to wrestle up to their #1 rankings and take care of business in their matches. Do that and an Iowa victory is attainable. It won't be easy, but it can be done. Iowa wrestled their best meet of the year against Minnesota last weekend; let's hope it was just the warm-up for Friday's showdown.
NOTE: It's been labeled a "blackout" event by Iowa, so be sure to wear black.