If you wanted the perfect two-hour advertisement for college wrestling, you'd be hard-pressed to find something better than Friday night's Iowa-Penn State dual. Two very good teams going back and forth, a pretty substantial amount of exciting wrestling, back-and-forth action, a dramatic battle for the win that came down to the final match, and -- oh yeah -- an electric crowd. 15,000+ Iowa fans (and a few Penn State partisans) packed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, setting the mark for the 7th-largest attendance for a dual meet in NCAA history and creating an absolutely electric atmosphere. It's impossible to quantify, but I don't doubt that that charged atmosphere put a little extra pep in the step of the Iowa wrestlers and helped them get some big wins (especially since three of Iowa's six wins came down to the final seconds). So to all those in attendance: well done. This dual was great fun to watch on TV; I suspect it was even better live.
And, again, the wrestling in this dual was just plain fun. It's great to see guys take chances, hit big moves, and score points. Five of the ten matches last night involved bonus points. Sometimes it was the Iowa wrestler putting a beatdown on their PSU counterpart (Ramos, Ballweg); sometimes it was the PSU wrestler thrashing an Iowa wrestler (Alton, Taylor, Ruth). But it was a breath of fresh air to see some wide-open wrestling in such a big dual meet; too often these meets devolve into tense, turgid affairs with most of the wrestlers afraid to cut loose (see: too many Iowa-Oklahoma State matches to count).
Granted, not every match featured a ton of offense -- you could count the number of decent shots at 125 on one hand (and let me just say that it's a pretty weird day when the heavyweight match features four times as many points as the 125-lb match) -- but many of them did, which made things a lot of fun. The other thing that made this dual so much fun was the sheer quality on display. These teams were ranked #1 and #3 entering this dual and those numbers were well-deserved -- 13 of the 20 wrestlers that competed last night were ranked in InterMat's top-10 last week. Six of those wrestlers were in the top two at their respective weights. Odds are pretty good that we'll be seeing several of these guys in the NCAA finals in a few months.
Speaking of that... this was a great, wonderfully impressive win for Iowa, but it was just that: a single win. This win doesn't necessarily turn things upside down for the Big Ten and NCAA title races in March; Penn State is still going to be a deserved favorite in those events thanks to their ridiculous bonus point capability. Iowa picked up some bonus points of their own in this meet (133 and 141), but they're going to need to continue to improve on that front if they're going to mount a real challenge to PSU for the hardware this year. Hopefully this win gives them some confidence to keep moving forward and to keep striving to improve and be aggressive.
Those results were pretty similar to the predictions in my preview earlier in the week -- I got the match-winner right in all ten matches and the bonus points right at 184. I just don't see Tony getting a pin, Ballweg getting a major, or Taylor getting a tech fall. I can't take too much credit for being right, though -- I picked the favorite at every right but 174, and even that was a toss-up.
125: Well, this was a rather heart attack-inducing way to start off the night. And McD might have to get by Nico twice more this season to claim additional trophies for his collection? Yeesh. We knew this would be a close match -- both their matches last year were nervy affairs and there had been nothing from either guy this season to suggest that this match would be any different. Nico remains adept at frustrating McDonough, mostly by locking up in a lot of collar-and-elbow ties on top and leaning hard on McD. Is there an element of stalling in that? I would say so... but it's almost never going to be called. (I thought the uncalled false starts Megaludis got away with at several points were more egregious mistakes on the part of the referee.)
To his credit, Nico did have the most dangerous shots in the match -- he got to McD's legs on a couple occasions and was in fairly deep before McD was able to stalemate him. The larger concern was that McD was never really that close to finishing one of his own shots; he was able to win this time without completing a shot of his own, but that won't always be the case. McD needs to go back to the drawing board where Nico is concerned and come up with some new tricks. Still, he gritted out a very tough win in this dual, a win that Iowa absolutely had to have (a loss would have sucked the air out of the building for Iowa and probably made it impossible for Iowa to win the dual) -- that's not easy to do and he ultimately came through for the Hawks against a tough opponent.
133: This was one of the few weights where Iowa figured to have an above-average shot at earning bonus points... and Tony did not disappoint. I thought he could get bonus points against Conaway, but even I certainly didn't expect him to get a pin. It's funny: Ramos has a rep for struggling to get back points in his matches and while that's not totally undeserved, he also leads Iowa's starters in pins with seven after sticking Conaway. So he's not exactly a total bum when it comes to getting guys on their backs. The trick for Tony is to be able to do that more consistently -- if he can do that he'll take the leap from very, very good wrestler to genuinely great wrestler.
In this match, he burst through with a takedown after a cagey first minute or so and getting that first takedown seemed to light a fire in Ramos, because he started working a takedown clinic on Conaway for the rest of the match, leading up to the point where he whipped him over with a very slick cow-catcher that planted him squarely on his back. The pin was academic at that point and the boost it gave the crowd -- and the cushion it gave Iowa in the score line -- was invaluable.
141: Ballweg came out next and had the uneviable task of following McDonough's nerve-rattling but dramatic win and Tony's emphatic domination, but he had little trouble putting up an impressive win of his own. The match started slowly, but once he was able to finally get Pearsall taken down, he quickly took control of the match and started racking up points. He used a combination of takedowns and hard rides (with bonus points) to blow the match wide open and cruise to a 12-2 win. Pearsall hadn't lost by more than a decision in any of his other matches this season, so Ballweg's dominant performance looks a little extra-impressive (although Pearsall also hasn't wrestled many top guys at 141). Ballweg continues to solidify his standing as a very good wrestler at 141.
149: Tom Brands made two surprising coaching decisions in this dual: one was starting Grant Gambrall at 184, and the other was starting Brody Grothus over Mike Kelly here. In both cases, there was some frustration with the way the incumbent at those weights had been wrestling and there was probably also some strategy involved in thinking about who would match up better with Alton (and Ruth). While I understand Brands' frustration with Kelly, I'm not exactly convinced that Grothus is a better option at this point. The last time we saw Grothus on the mat, he was getting tossed around by Michigan's Eric Grajales. In this match Grothus was... getting tossed around by Andrew Alton. Someone hook him up with Chris Doyle because he badly needs to get stronger.
It was painful to watch him in the first period (and the first part of the second); Alton is a very fine wrestler (and an uncommonly strong one for 149), but watching him throw Grothus around with ease was unsettling. For a bit, it seemed like even avoiding a pin would be a pipe dream for Grothus. And then a funny thing happened: Alton gassed. Badly. Alton was just about dead on his feet for the final three-ish minutes of this match, which enabled Grothus to score a few points of his own and make sure that Alton wasn't going to get a tech fall (or pin); it was hard not to wonder what Kelly might have been able to do instead, though. Would he have been able to avoid digging himself such a massive hole? Would he have been able to score more than Grothus after it was clear Alton was running on fumes? We'll never know, but for all his flaws, I think I'd still rather see Kelly at this weight for the rest of the season.
157: Another match between St. John and Alton that came down to a wild takedown in the final seconds? You don't say. Of course, this match wasn't a total carbon copy of their matches last season -- there were two takedowns (one apiece) rather than just one and this match didn't go into sudden victory overtime -- but there were still an awful lot of similarities. Alton was able to capitalize on a rare St. John mistake and pick up the match's first takedown, but St. John used his uncanny scrambling ability to slip behind Alton and score the clinching takedown late in the third period. Like so many St. John matches, this one wasn't always pretty to watch, but in a close match there are few guys in the sport who are more skilled at grinding out late points and tough wins. Maybe next time he can get a takedown a bit earlier on Alton, though, just to make things a little easier for us? Hmm?
165: It's a rare (and unwelcome) sight to see an Iowa wrestler look completely outclassed against his opponent, but sometimes it happens. It's even rarer for it to happen to a genuinely good wrestler, which I think Moore had proven to be with his strong results in January. Unfortunately, on Friday he ran into a buzzsaw with bangs who goes by the name of David Taylor. Taylor obliterated Moore so quickly, so easily, and so comprehensively that it was breathtaking to behold. If you came away from that match more disappointed in Moore than you were impressed by Taylor, then you've made a big mistake. This match should have given us an idea of what it felt like for fans of other teams to watch an Iowa wrestler like Brent Metcalf tear their guy apart... except that I think Taylor is better than Metcalf. He's an incredibly special talent and a very rare combination of extreme competitiveness, very high wrestling IQ, and tremendous athleticism. He destroyed Nick Moore on his feet with an array of lightning-quick ankle-picks and slick slide-bys and he dominated him on the mat as well. It sucked to see Moore get worked like that, but frankly Taylor (and Kyle Dake) are just on another level entirely when it comes to this weight. It happens.
174: In The 'Stache we trust. I don't know how to describe the scramble that preceded Evans' crucial, match-clinching takedown without lapsing into cliche -- full of grit, moxie, heart, whatever -- but it was extraordinary. He looked dead and buried in that moment, with Brown in deep and seemingly assured of scoring. But then he didn't -- and then Evans did score on the edge of the mat. It was an uncanny reversal of fortunes and a display of scrambling prowess that would make even Mark Perry tip his hat in respect. This was the fourth-straight match for Evans against top-ten ranked opposition at 174 that came down to the final seconds -- he won against Heflin and Brown and came up just short against Storley and Perry -- and while it would be nice if he could maybe secure one of these wins a little sooner and a little more easily, you certainly can't say that Evans doesn't give you a lot of bang for your buck.
Evans struggled for much of the match to get his own offense going against the shorter, stockier Brown, but he effectively defended Brown's own shot attempts, too. Until that insane scramble near the end of the third, Brown hadn't come that close to getting a takedown of his own on Evans. Unfortunately, he still led in the match thanks to a reversal when Evans was on top at the start of the second. Evans again struggled to effectively ride his opponent in that situation -- he got too high on Brown, which made it possible for Brown to slip around and get the reversal. This has been a persistent problem for Evans all year against top guys; I really hope he can get it fixed before March, where it could wind up costing him big.
184: As noted earlier, Brands made two eyebrow-raising coaching decisions in this dual: one was starting Grothus at 149, the other was pulling Grant Gambrall out of mothballs for this match. This was probably the more surprising move; Grothus and Kelly had already rotated a bit this season, so seeing one in place of the other wasn't that shocking. But Gambrall had been MIA for months, so seeing him return -- in Iowa's biggest dual meet of the year, no less -- was pretty stunning. The decision probably had as much to do with Lofthouse as it did Gambrall -- no wrestler on the Iowa team seems more bereft of confidence right now than Lofthouse and getting thrashed by a guy like Ruth probably wasn't going to help that flagging confidence.
As far as how Gambrall did... it seem strange to praise a guy who loses a 21-10 major decision, but he did some good things. He was aggressive on his feet -- more aggressive there than we've seen from Gambrall in several years, honestly. Sometimes that aggression backfired, as when it left him in bad positions that enabled Ruth to grab easy takedowns, but it also kept Ruth honest at times and did lead to a few takesdowns for Gambrall (including a nice double-leg early in the match). (It was also far more takedown attempts than we'd seen from Lofthouse lately.) Gambrall also certainly stalled on the mat, but here again the mission was not to get stuck by Ruth and, well, he did accomplish that. I don't know which guy (Lofthouse or Gambrall) gives Iowa a better shot of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament or scoring points at either Big Tens or NCAAs, but I think this effort was probably good enough to earn Gambrall at least one more shot to show what he can do at 184. This is hardly an ideal time of the year to be tinkering with the lineup, but sometimes it can't be helped.
(Also, a word about Ed Ruth? Like Taylor, he's pretty incredible, too. He has a terrifying blend of strength and quickness, as well as some very sharp technique. He's a holy terror at 184 and the fact that Penn State has two wrestlers like that is just plain not fair.)
197: The main remit for Burak in this match was "don't get pinned" by the crafty Wright and he managed that quite well. He was never in any real danger of being put on his back during the match -- hell, he was never in serious danger of giving up bonus points here. He parried Wright's takedown attempts nicely in the third period. He was caught in a few bad spots earlier in the match and gave up takedowns and his own offense was pretty ineffective against Wright, but for a first-time match against an opponent as good as Wright, this was a more than credible performance by Burak.
285: Eleven points! In a heavyweight match! Will wonders never cease. Maybe there's just something about the month of January that Telford doesn't like; he slumped through it last year before putting together some nice results in February and March and ultimately finishing 5th at the NCAA Tournament, and this year he had a January to forget, between a handful of losses and a bout with the flu. But February brings rebirth and there was certainly a different, more aggressive Telford on display in this match. He secured a slick takedown early in the match and then rode Gingrich with impressive ferocity for basically the next four minutes of the match. He did give up a silly reversal in the third period, but he also had a reversal of his own and briefly had Gingrich locked up in a cradle (and, man, a pin would have been an incredible way to cap off this dual meet win) and, all in all, locked like the Telford we'd hoped to see all year. He still needs to do a better job of getting to an opponent's legs, but this was a tricky match with an incredible amount of pressure riding on it (a loss would have left the meet tied at 19-19; Penn State would have won on the total match points tiebreaker) and Bobby came through in a big way.
NEXT: Iowa travels to Champbana to take on Illinois next Friday night, February 8. The meet will be live on BTN at 7:00 pm CT.