When is a blowout also a loss? When you blow out a pair of opponents but find yourself feeling worse about a team's chances of reaching its ultimate goal... which is where I find myself after watching Iowa defeat #4 Ohio State, 22-9, and #21 Purdue, 29-9, this weekend. Iowa recorded a pair of lopsided dual meet victories, but the performances that comprised those victories made me feel less confident about Iowa's chances of toppling #1 Penn State and winning a national championship this season.
This weekend's duals -- or at least the Ohio State encounter -- were slated to be Iowa's first real test of the 2012-13 season; the best grade I could give the Iowa team after seeing the results of that test is an incomplete. They didn't fail it... but they sure as hell didn't pass it with flying colors, either. At its current ability, this team is not good enough to win a Big Ten championship or a national championship (which are likely one and the same, as they have been for the past five seasons; Oklahoma State represents the best chance for a non-B1G team to unseat the B1G from its national title dominance, but they're not better than Penn State). The good news? You don't win championships in January -- you win them in March. There's still plenty of time for Iowa to build on these performances and improve and turn into a team that can mount a serious challenge for a national title. I believe that the talent is (more or less) there -- whether they can wrestle at the level they need to wrestle at to win it all... well, that's another question entirely.
As a team, the current Iowa squad looked lethargic and tentative too often over the course of these two duals. Too often, Iowa wrestlers were afraid to be aggressive, afraid to take a shot, afraid to look for offense. That, quite simply, is not Iowa wrestling. Too often, Iowa wrestlers struggled to ride guys (particularly at the end of periods; I lost track of how many times they gave up cheap escapes -- or, worse, reversals -- at the end of a period). And they struggled even more to turn guys and get back/nearfall points. You don't get bonus points for getting a takedown, an escape, and a riding time point and winning 4-1. And without bonus points Iowa has no realistic shot of winning a national title, short of an Ebola outbreak among our biggest competitors (why, no, I'm not sending any disease-riddled monkeys to State College... perish the thought). But too many Iowa guys seem content to try and win those 4-1 matches. It's maddening. It's disappointing. It's discouraging. It sucks.
Reportedly, Iowa skipped on attending this year's Midlands Tournament in order to better prepare for these duals (the Ohio State dual, in particular); if that's the case... what a goddamn waste. Maybe they overtrained. Maybe they were too amped up to get revenge on Ohio State. Maybe they were too nervous. Whatever the case, the performances this weekend (although not necessarily the results themselves) were disappointing. The goal is not to beat Ohio State in a dual meet by 20 match points. The goal is to win championships. Right now, they can do the former but their ability to do the latter is in doubt.
Of course, any event that can lead to a picture like this isn't all bad:
125: Matt McDonough only wrestled one match this weekend, a 10-5 decision win over OSU's Triggas. He's now wrestled in just two of Iowa's last five dual meets; it might be time to start worrying about him. Brands insists he's fine and there's been no message board muttering about an injury, but... something ain't right. It's not like him to miss this many matches and when he has wrestled, he hasn't looked like the unstoppable destroyer that we've come to know and worship over the last three seasons. He looked gassed in the match with Triggas and he's had trouble getting out from underneath guys at other times this season. Maybe he's having trouble with the cut, maybe he's been dealing with some illnesses... whatever the case, I hope he can get right. Iowa really needs their best wrestler operating at closer to peak performance. Gurule gave it a game effort against Eppert on Sunday, but that result there should give you an indication of where he stands in the pecking order at 125. Thomas Gilman, Iowa's "other" true freshman at 125 this year (i.e., not-Cory Clark) beat Eppert 14-4 earlier this season. Gurule lost 4-2.
133: This was supposed to be the Weekend of Tony, the weekend where Tony got to face some real competition and we got to see just how much Tony had improved since last year. Unfortunately, the Weekend of Tony was a total bust -- top-ranked Logan Stieber (OSU) sat out the meet on Friday due to an injury (though no one seemed too sure of its severity) and #13 Cashe Quiroga sat out the meet on Sunday due to an injury (though his was pretty apparent; he was on crutches and his leg was in a heavy brace, reportedly). So Tony got to wrestle a pair of backups instead. He dominated both guys, but he also showed some worrisome weaknesses in those dominant performances -- notably, a difficulty in turning guys and getting back points and pins. Now it's also true that both opponents likely went on the mat with one goal in mind -- don't get put on your back -- but at the same time that's just the way things go for most elite wrestlers. Guys turtled up against Metcalf, they turtle up against Kyle Dake, they turtle up against McD, they turtle up against Jordan Oliver... and yet those guys still manage to rack up a lot of points. During his fabulous commentary on Sunday, Gable noted that there are ways to still get guys like that on their backs... it just requires going at things a little bit differently. Tony won Friday's match by a preposterous 30-14 score (so, yes, he outscored the football team in 10 of their 12 games this fall), but it was a pretty empty 30 points -- half of them came on easy go-arounds because the guy was just curled up in a ball on the mat. He needed to not take those easy points, force the ref to make Visconti stand up, and then try to get him on his back with some different moves. Tony is a very, very good wrestler, easily one of Iowa's best. But to become a truly great wrestler he needs to be able to get more back points and more pins, even against opponents who are working on their human turtle impressions.
Still, we did get this brilliant image from one of Tony's matches this weekend, so there was certainly stuff to love:
141: This weekend was the first big test for Mark Ballweg and he... did okay. We wanted to see how well he matched up with one of the elite wrestlers at this weight (Stieber) and he more than held his own. He showed some great scrambling ability and had an early lead on Stieber before a few mental mistakes (and some slick takedowns from Stieber) flipped the match on its head; even, Mark was still very close to snatching a win at the end. He still has some things to work on -- he's a little too flat-footed at times and leaves himself a little too vulnerable to quick-strike takedown attempts -- but overall I was encouraged by Ballweg's showing against Stieber. And on Sunday he did a nice job of mauling Nelsen. He picked up several takedowns (not something he always does) and managed to flip him for back points on his way to a technical fall. Well done.
149: Well, 149 is looking a bit muddled now. Before this weekend, it seemed that Mike Kelly was the established choice at this weight; he'd wrestled every match for Iowa at this weight in several consecutive dual meets. He duly wrestled in Friday night's dual -- a narrow 8-7 loss to Cam Tessari (a match that he probably could have won if he'd given the gassed Tessari an escape earlier in the third period and attempted to push for another takedown) -- but was replaced on Sunday by Brody Grothus. Grothus and Kelly were neck-and-neck for this spot entering the season, but Grothus had been MIA ever since suffering a knee injury early in the season. Furthermore, Kelly had looked pretty solid over the past few months, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Grothus get the nod on Sunday. Grothus also lost -- a narrow 10-9 loss to Lopouchanski after a flurry of early action had staked Brody to a 6-1 lead -- so I'm not sure where this weight stands. The ceiling (and potential for bonus points) is probably a bit higher with Grothus here, but he's also a bit more likely to give up points than Kelly. Brands will probably need to make a final decision soon, so that one of these two guys can get enough experience to be ready for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a little more rotation at this weight over the next 3-4 dual meets. (God help whoever gets the nod to wrestle #1 Jordan Oliver next Sunday, though.)
157: This was a frustrating weekend for St. John. It's frustrating to see a top-ranked wrestler only grab two decision wins over two unranked or low-ranked opponents. I do think Demas is a difficult opponent, one whose quickness and funk makes him a real challenge to handle, so I would give St. John a little bit of a pass on that result. (Demas also lost a narrow decision to #2 Jason Welch (NW) in his other match this weekend, so there's an argument to be made that he's very under-ranked.) But Churchard isn't that good and it was frustrating to see DSJ be so happy to simply ride him without really working hard to turn him or to not get more takedowns. DSJ is too good to be satisfied with 4-2 and 7-3 wins. And, frankly, Iowa needs one of its best wrestlers to be better than that.
165: On Friday, we had Nick Moore at his most frustrating: getting an early takedown (literally, within the first minute of the match) and then proceeding to... do pretty much absolutely fucking nothing the rest of the match. He barely shot, barely did anything against an unranked true freshman. "Frustrating" doesn't begin to describe it. On Sunday, we had Nick Moore at his most exciting: pushing the pace, looking to score, even attempting (and getting!) takedowns at the end of the match to push the score even higher. That is the Moore that dominated the Iowa prep ranks and that made him a blue-chip recruit. That is the Moore we need to see more of this season. Let's hope we do.
174: The wrestler of the weekend was a no-brainer: Mike Evans emerged as a full-blown star. He had his "Carver moment" when he battled back from some early sloppiness against #2 Nick Heflin to win in overtime on Friday with a roof-rattling nearfall (that probably should have been ruled a fall) in sudden victory and he followed that up with a dominating pinfall win over Purdue's Welch. He beat quality competition and he thrashed lesser competition -- that's exactly what you want out of your best wrestlers. Evans also revealed some definite swagger in his post-match interview on Friday -- he derided Heflin's first takedown as "cheap" and called him "lazy" in sudden victory -- and, fuck it, I'm all for guys showing some personality and some fire. Matt McDonough is clean-cut and well-spoken; Mike Evans is a hairy, dirty, cocky hellraiser who looks like he should probably be hanging out with Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. And it's AWESOME. There's plenty of room for both types of guys on this team. I can't wait to watch more of Mike Evans this year (and the following two seasons).
184: See Moore, Nick. Lofthouse had a frustrating, slow-paced, do just enough to win performance on Friday, but then had a rip-roaring offense-heavy, aggressive performance on Sunday. I don't know if Brands pulled them aside and had a "come to Jesus"* moment with both guys on Saturday that really sunk in or what, but if we could see that Nick Moore and that Ethen Lofthouse on a more consistent basis... well, I'd feel a lot more comfortable about Iowa's title aspirations. Because the Moore and Lofthouse we saw on Sunday were relentless, aggressive, point-scoring machines. And it was great.
* I'm not sure which gospel talks about Jesus imploring his followers to go for an ankle-pick and go for two relentlessly, but I'm sure it's in there.
197: You can make a compelling argument that Nathan Burak recorded the biggest win of the weekend by knocking off #9 Andrew Campolattano on Friday. Evans beat the highest ranked wrestler (#2 Heflin), but his win wasn't really that surprising -- we knew Evans was a stud and this win over a highly-ranked opponent was just confirmation (exhilarating and thrilling confirmation) of that. Burak is still much more of an unknown quantity, so his win over a talented, ranked opponent like Camp was much more shocking. But Burak looked really good on Friday: he showed nice aggression on offense and solid awareness on defense and just wrestled an overall very smart match. Sunday didn't go as well -- a moment of sloppiness led to the decisive touchdown and he struggled to get out from underneath Atwood in the third period -- but he definitely showed great progress this weekend. He still has a ways to go, but 197 doesn't look like quite as much of a hole in the lineup as it did a month ago.
285: Most of the disappointment with Iowa wrestlers this weekend stemmed from performances that were good -- or at least acceptable -- just not great. Guys like Moore, Lofthouse, and St. John wrestled to fairly easy, unremarkable decisions; the frustration was that they didn't win by more, but at least they won. Telford, on the other hand, was just plain disappointing. He lost in unspectacular fashion on Friday to #13 Capone, a match where Telford seemed to revert to the tentative, shaved bear style that proved so frustrating last year. I thought he was a little more active than, say, Nate Moore, but he wasn't able to finish any of his shots, which was maddening. He finished a shot on Sunday, against Purdue's Alex White, but only beating a guy with a 7-8 record by a score of 4-1 is brutally disappointing. Maybe Telford was just distracted by White's ample moobs, but he needed to be far more active in that match. Telford is a guy we were penciling in as an All-American and potential top-4 finisher, but the Telford that wrestled for Iowa this weekend was nowhere near that level. Bobby needs to get better -- fast.
NEXT: Iowa visits their old friends in Stillwater.