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Iowa Wrestling: No. 2 Iowa vs No. 1 Penn State - Preview, HTW Guide & Match Thread

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Moment of Truth

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The biggest dual of the year has arrived. Iowa/Penn State has been the most anticipated showdown nearly every year for over a decade and not just for their respective fan bases but for the entire college wrestling world. 2020’s dual set the BTN wrestling viewership record. The fervor of this year’s dual should match 2020’s and once again pits undefeated #1 and #2 squads (both are alternately ranked #1 and #2 depending on what ranking service is used...one also has Iowa at #3 behind #2 Michigan but we’ll ignore that one because everyone makes mistakes) in front of what will be yet another sold out wrestling crowd at Carver in Iowa City.

Both teams have had specific reasons to circle this dual on their calendars beyond just wanting to become king of the mountain. For Iowa, the last encounters of DeSanto, Eierman, and Kemerer with their Penn State foes were all loses. That despite the fact all three have had one or more prior victories over these same opponents. Nothing is likely pushing these guys harder than revenge. PSU meanwhile, bolstered by multiple transfers in 2022, has an absolute hotrod of a team they want to show off and are eyeing the setting of this dual in Iowa City where they haven’t won since 2017 as the next best place to do it.

The series history of this dual is quite interesting. Since Sanderson arrived at Penn State in 2010 he has won eight national titles, but he has only beaten Iowa in a head to head dual four out of nine times. Brands’ Iowa has beaten PSU twice even in years the Lions have gone on to be NCAA champs. The explanation for such puzzling results is simple. Iowa has always had a balanced lineup with ranked guys at every, or nearly every weight, meaning stealing points anywhere in a 10 match dual isn’t possible and allows Iowa to win duals by attrition. Penn State on the other hand, has typically had lineups which vary widely from unanimous #1 ranked guys at a few weights to also having a few weights with guys that may not even have winning records. In duals, Iowa has been able to afford to give up losses to top end talent where they’re outgunned and still come out on top by winning the majority of the 10 contested weights. Tournaments, however, reward teams for extreme individual talent. Having one tournament champion is better from a team score perspective than sneaking several All-Americans onto the podium.

Turning to this year’s dual, we see a similar picture as in the past for Iowa but not PSU. And this is where the pressure starts to build on Iowa. PSU has the most complete top to bottom roster they’ve ever had and they’ve accomplished it by retaining their best wrestlers and simultaneously exploiting the transfer market. Coming into the year and through the first month plus of the season, Iowa was a clear favorite not just to win but possibly dominate this dual but then, the last month-ish happened.

Spencer Lee called off his season on New Year’s Day for knee surgeries. Penn State filled their absolute black hole of non-competitiveness at 125 with an out of the blue, mid season addition of “retired” All-American Drew Hildebrandt who appeared in his first dual on January 7th. If that wasn’t surprising enough, Brady Berge, PSU’s 157lber from years past who also “retired” due to head injury concerns and was coaching at South Dakota State, has returned to fill a hole at 165 where PSU hadn’t won a single match this year until Berge rejoined them in January 16th. Is that all? Not even close. Due to the Ivy League and Cornell’s ridiculous, Covid induced decision to cancel their 2020-2021 season, Cornell’s Max Dean chose to transfer in the off season and wound up at PSU. Lucky for them because although Penn State already had an All-American quality wrestler at 197 in Michael Beard, he was injured at the Southern Scuffle and his status for the rest of this year is unknown. Add in Tony Negron, the NCST transfer competing for the starting spot at 157, and if you want to go back two seasons to include, Greg Kerkvliet, it’s possible that an entire one half of PSU’s lineup could be assembled from guys who weren’t even on the roster a few weeks ago and/or didn’t start their careers at Penn State.

Iowa also has two transfer starters in DeSanto and Eierman but if I may be permitted to cast a little shade, Sanderson recruited multiple transfers with the clear intention of using them as replacements for starters in Beard at 197 and Seth Nevills at 285. Brands brought in DeSanto and Eierman only after Iowa had slots opened by graduating seniors. But, it’s hard not to admire the kind of ruthlessness one would expect from a Lex Luthor doppelganger in the wild west transfer market college sports have become. The willingness to unseat prior starters with better talent is something coaches will have to plan and embrace to win championships and is the other side of a double edged sword athletes with increased transfer flexibility must accept . At least one position on a certain Iowa Fall sports team would benefit from a touch of ruthlessness.

If Lee’s injury and PSU’s transfer boosts weren’t enough to cause concern, recent results do nothing to promote confidence. Iowa has seen some exciting individual performances this year but as a team they look uninspired. Despite taking 6 of 10 bouts vs Ohio state last week with all four losses coming by a takedown or less, the meet saw multiple wrestlers sweating profusely and just trying to hang on which wasn’t enough for Marinelli who suffered his first loss of the year. Meanwhile, PSU took a Michigan team who embarrassed the Ohio State squad Iowa struggled with to the wood shed last week, winning 8 of 10 bouts, beating Michigan’s Olympic bronze medalist at 184 and Mason Parris at heavyweight whose only other losses in the past three years have all been to Olympic Gold Medalist Gable Steveson. Yikes. On top of it all is the fact that Penn State scouts opponents better than anyone in the country and improves their results against repeat opponents at a rate very near 100% of the time. There are at least four repeat matchups between Iowa and PSU slated for this dual.

ALL that said, Iowa has experience, the best home mat advantage in the world, and a talented lineup that hasn’t wrestled even close to its potential yet this year at most weights.

PROBABLE LINEUPS:

125lbs: #9 Drake Ayala vs #8 Drew Hildebrandt

133: #3 Austin DeSanto vs #1 Roman Bravo-Young

141: #2 Jaydin Eierman vs #1 Nick Lee

149: #10 Max Murin vs #15 Beau Bartlett

157: #12 Kaleb Young vs Terrell Barraclough or Tony Negron

165: #5 Alex Marinelli vs #10 Brady Berge

174: #2 Michael Kemerer vs #1 Carter Starocci

184: #17 Abe Assad vs #1 Aaron Brooks

197: #3 Jacob Warner vs #2 Max Dean

285: #5 Anthony Cassioppi vs #2 Greg Kerkvliet

*Rankings via Flowrestling

For the first time in what is probably years if not a decade plus, Iowa will have to pull off multiple upsets to win a dual meet. Read “upset” with a grain of salt however because half the field is composed of matchups between guys who have both beaten and lost to their opponents in the past and/or are neck in neck in the rankings. Because I’m choosing to be in an optimistic mood, let’s preview the matches in the most reasonably favorable way that leads to an Iowa victory.

125lbs: #9 Drake Ayala vs #8 Drew Hildebrandt

For the first time in his college career, Ayala met an opponent last week with comparable offensive pace. Ohio State’s Heinselman was incredibly active on his feet which no doubt shook up the freshman Ayala’s game plan. Hildebrandt, like most PSU wrestlers, is more likely to employ impeccable defense, good riding, and timely counter shots in this one. Barring a fluke pin or DQ somewhere in Iowa’s favor, Iowa has to win this bout for a realistic chance of prevailing in this dual. Count on Ayala drawing energy from the home crowd to build a lead in the 1st period that he hangs onto for the decision.

3-0 Iowa

133: #3 Austin DeSanto vs #1 Roman Bravo-Young

We have here the first of three huge rematches which Iowa came out the wrong end of last year. What absolutely cannot happen in this match is a replay of the last dual meeting between ADS and RBY where ADS injury defaulted and flipped a possible three team point match for Iowa to a six team point match for PSU. Thinking back to that 2020 dual, it’s a marvel Iowa still won. Iowa giving up bonus points literally anywhere in this dual means things are likely to get ugly. But as a newly confessed optimist, I think DeSanto rights the ship here. He is looking as strong as at any point in his career and RBY has seemed a step slow in a couple recent showings. That isn’t saying much because even at two steps slow he’s likely the quickest wrestler currently in the sport but DeSanto’s pace snowballs on anyone who lags behind. My sincere hope is that Brands and Co have developed a strategy to counteract RBY’s stalling tactic of holding an arm behind his back preventing DeSanto from getting to his preferred fireman’s carry shot. DeSanto gets three TDs in this one, dodges RBY’s jumping over the back takedown attempts in the 3rd period and stays out of trouble for another decision.

6-0 Iowa

141: #2 Jaydin Eierman vs #1 Nick Lee

Eierman is one of those guys in the lineup that just looks tired and honestly he’s looked that way ever since the 3rd period of his NCAA finals loss to...Nick Lee. If there was anyone not named Austin DeSanto you don’t want to drag your feet against, it’s takedown machine Lee. The best hope in this one is for Eierman to get on top even if it means choosing the top position and use any tricks he has left to expose Lee’s back because going toe to toe on your feet with Lee isn’t likely to end well. Lee by decision.

6-3 Iowa

149: #10 Max Murin vs #15 Beau Bartlett

The bright spot of last week’s Ohio State meet may just have been Murin’s bout with Sammy Sasso. Murin had a lead and was riding until the final seconds of that match when he gave up a reversal. He looked good in every phase considering the competition. Bartlett is a solid wrestler with great defense but his offense checks in at just a fraction above zero. Murin needs to build a lead by any means necessary before the 3rd period starts and he should win this one.

9-3 Iowa

157: #12 Kaleb Young vs Terrell Barraclough or Tony Negron

If Iowa ever needed Kaleb Young to return to form, now is the time. Penn State’s one potential hole in their lineup is 157. Of all the matchups in this dual, 157 SHOULD be the most lopsided. A bonus point victory from Young going into intermission would send Carver into a frenzy. More likely, we see a controlled decision.

12-3 Iowa

165: #5 Alex Marinelli vs #10 Brady Berge

Copy the description for Beau Bartlett and paste it under Berge’s name: Solid. Great defense. No offense except counters. Marinelli of years past would be seeking bonus points here but the way he’s looked so far suggests another one TD match, then riding and hanging in front headlocks to win.

15-3 Iowa

174: #2 Michael Kemerer vs #1 Carter Starocci

This is the third weight at which Iowa is looking to avenge a painful loss and has a bit of the feeling of the 133 match. The chances of Iowa winning either of these two weights is less than Penn State winning both but the optimistic view of this dual is for a win at one of 133 or 174, take your pick. Kemerer has the same history with Starocci he had with Mark Hall. A fairly convincing win followed by a rematch loss in a tournament final. In this bout he’ll have the opportunity to take a 2-1 series lead over his feline foe which he didn’t get vs Hall due to Covid. If only the cloud of a shoulder injury wasn’t hanging over Iowa’s guy. A fully healthy Kemerer is better than starocci but until he proves he’s back to 100%, the win goes to PSU.

15-6 Iowa

184: #17 Abe Assad vs #1 Aaron Brooks

On paper this is the dual’s biggest underdog match for Iowa but the score is unlikely to be a runaway for Brooks. Assad would no doubt be ranked higher if he’d had more opportunities against ranked opponents this year. And Brooks is not, relatively speaking, a big point scorer. He rolls out bonus point securing offense against lesser opponents but beats competent challengers via unbreakable defense, great riding and scrambling, and forcing opponents to come to him. Look no further than his match with Michigan’s Amine for a clinic on fending off shots. Brooks and Assad wrestled in 2020 to a 3-7 decision. Expect much the same here.

15-9 Iowa

197: #3 Jacob Warner vs #2 Max Dean

For as long as these two have been around, no history exists between them, due to this being Dean’s first year at 197. The dual matchup here may be the first of several bouts between them this year into next. There isn’t much separating Warner and Dean. Against overmatched competition, Dean is more likely to collect bonus points than Warner but vs top opponents, both of them find ways to eek out narrow wins. Two things of note, Dean did take his first loss of the year last week against Cam Caffey of MSU. Secondly, the #1 ranked wrestler at this weight and near lock to repeat as NCAA national champion, AJ Ferrari of Oklahoma State, was involved in a multiple roll over car accident this week. He survived without catastrophic injury in what his father called a miracle as did the passenger in his car and the driver of another car involved in the crash. He’ll certainly be unable to compete for the remainder of this year but I’d put odds on seeing him in a wrestling singlet again. The implication of his absence for this match is massive. The winner of Warner vs Dean will be #1 at 197. Put your hand up if you predicted Jacob Warner would be the highest or tied for the highest rated wrestler on Iowa’s team this year. Now put it down. He’ll have a great shot to win here but what I neglected to mention about Dean’s loss last week is that it was his only one since the 2019 NCAA final, almost three years ago.

15-12 Iowa

285: #5 Anthony Cassioppi vs #2 Greg Kerkvliet

Kerkvliet’s win over Mason Parris last week was stunning. Full stop. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been the surprise it was. Michigan’s entire lineup looked like a deflated balloon and Kerkvliet was the #1 overall prospect in his recruiting class who just needed time to rehab an injury from last year. Kerkvliet took down Parris nearly at will and left him with the same look on his face opponents have after getting trucked by Steveson. This is all very bad news for Cassioppi. Parris has pinned Big Cass in both of their meetings and now he has to face the guy who put Parris in his place. Cass did beat Kerkvliet easily by 9-0 MD at the Big10 tournament last year but results from when Kerk was effectively wrestling injured carry scant meaning. Our hypothetical scenario thus far has the dual coming down to this match, making it a cagey one. Kerk takes a comfortable decision to even the team score 15-15 but without bonus points, Iowa wins the dual by tie-breaking criteria for scoring more takedowns. How’s that for suspense?

Regrettably, I have family obligations and will be unable to post play-by-play in the comments. Feel free to post live updates and scores below.

Broadcast Info

Opponent: #1 Penn State

Dual time: 8PM God’s Time (Central) // Friday January 28th, 2022

TV: BTN

Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena // Iowa City, Iowa