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IOWA 25, ILLINOIS 12: I WISH I WAS AN ALEX MEYER PINNER

That is what I truly wish to be...

Iowa returned home to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time in well over a month last night, concluding a grueling run of four dual meets (three on the road) and a two-day tournament in two and a half weeks.  Tom Brands didn't offer that an explanation -- or excuse -- for Iowa's occasionally sluggish performance in a 25-12 dual meet win over #11 Illinois, but it surely played a factor.  Tough schedule or not, Brands was not satisfied with a dual meet where Iowa won seven of ten matches, but made several mental mistakes and looked outclassed at times by the opposition.  Brands elaborated on his dissatisfaction in the press conference after the meet:

Iowa got the dual meet off to a solid start with an 18-6 major decision win by Thomas Gilman over unranked Dominic Oliveri.  As expected, two-time NCAA champion Jesse Delgado sat out the dual, though he looked ready to return to the mat shortly.  Gilman steamrolled Oliveri in Delgado's absence, using the match (much like last Sunday's win over Oklahoma State's Eddie Klimara) to work on his takedowns.  He got to the legs with ease and even scored on a pair of slick slide-bys.  As ever, though, the real test will come when Gilman faces a challenging opponent -- that's when we need to see Gilman cutting loose from neutral and scoring points.

Cory Clark followed Gilman, in what wound up being the match of the meet (ranking-wise), but he came up short in his bid to grab a second-straight win over Zane Richards, losing 6-5.  The match itself was eerily similar to Clark's loss to Ohio State's Johnni DiJulius just a few weeks ago -- in both matches, Clark started the first period slowly and quickly found himself in a hole after conceding quick takedowns to his opponents.  In both matches, Clark picked up the pace in the following periods, but spent too much time locked up in tie-ups and handfighting to get the necessary takedowns to complete his comeback.  Richards, like DiJulius, stalled his ass off in the third period, but the key for Clark remains those sluggish first periods.  Until he can fix those showings, he's going to find himself in trouble far too often.

Josh Dziewa got Iowa back on the winning track with an underwhelming 3-2 win at 141.  On the bright side, Jeva avenged his loss to Rodrigues at Midlands earlier in the season and he displayed some excellent defense and scrambling ability in fighting off Rodrigues' numerous shots.  On the not-so-bright side, Jeva's own offense was largely MIA (save for the decisive third-period takedown, which came on Jeva's only real shot of the match) and the fact that he let Rodrigues get to his legs so easily was alarming.  Getting the win was nice, but Jeva still needs to up his performance.

Brandon Sorensen was surprised by an early takedown against Kyle Langenderfer, but bounced back from that to methodically dispatch his opponent over the remaining two and a half periods.  It was disappointing that he was unable to lock up a major decision, though, particularly when he was so close to doing so in the third period.  Sorensen has had an excellent season so far and been one of Iowa's most pleasant surprises, but the next step for him is being able to more consistently get bonus points (especially against unranked opponents).

Unfortunately, after 149, the dual meet took a dark turn for Iowa.  Given the impressive way Kelly had battled over the last few weeks, I thought that he might be able to keep things a bit closer in his rematch against Illinois super-frosh Isaiah Martinez.  Oops.  Instead, Kelly lost in even more lopsided fashion, going from a 16-5 major decision loss at Midlands to a 21-6 technical fall loss on Friday.  Worse, he got tech fall'd by Martinez in the second period.  It's clear that Kelly is a cut (or three) below the top guys at 157, but it was still alarming to see him get manhandled so easily by Martinez.  It's one thing to lose, but to get blown off the mat?  Yikes.

Iowa didn't fare much better at the next weight, with Nick Moore surprisingly being held out in favor of redshirt freshman Logan Thomsen. It was the second straight dual meet that Moore didn't wrestle and it further exposed Iowa's lack of depth at 165 lbs. Against Oklahoma State's #1-ranked Alex Dieringer, Patrick Rhoads bumped up from 157... and promptly got smoked.  Against Illinois' #8-ranked Jackson Morse, Logan Thomsen bumped from 157... and promptly got smoked.  About the best thing we can say is that he didn't get pinned (or tech fall'd).  That said, bumping up a weight to face a top-10 opponent is no picnic, either.  Brands didn't offer any explanation for Moore's absence, but did say that he expected him to be back in the lineup against Northwestern next Friday.

Morse's win gave Illinois a somewhat surprising 12-10 lead in the dual and things didn't look much better with Iowa sending out another backup, Alex Meyer, at 174 to face #6 Zac Brunson.  They looked even worse when Meyer gave up a takedown almost immediately to start the match.  But Meyer is actually a very good backup (his 3rd place finish at Midlands was a mighty solid performance) and he has the conditioning and grind-it-out mentality that you need to finish off upset wins.  That said, things didn't look promising for most of the match, especially when Brunson got a second takedown to build his lead to 5-2 (5-3 after Meyer's escape).  When Meyer didn't show much initiative in the third period as the clock ticked down, things looked even worse.  And then this:

HOLY SHIT. PIN OUTTA NOWHERE. A visibly tired Brunson let down his guard with just seconds remaining in the match and Meyer pounced, not only hitting a beautiful takedown (which would have been enough to tie the match and send it to sudden victory) but going one further and stacking Brunson up and getting the match-ending pin -- with barely a second to spare before the final whistle.  Like I said: HOLY. SHIT.  The crowd erupted, Meyer flexed, the momentum in the dual meet did a 180, and an unforgettable memory was forged.  No matter what happens for Meyer in the rest of his Iowa career (and he still has two more years to go after this one, so there's plenty of time to go), he'll always have this fantastic moment for people to remember him by.

Meyer's stunning pin was a nine-point turnaround in the team score, with Illinois going from a 15-10 lead to a 16-12 deficit in a matter of seconds.  Given Iowa's fairly sizable advantage in the remaining three matches of the meet, that pin also basically locked up the dual for Iowa.  I still would have favored Iowa to take the dual even if Meyer had lost (they would have won 19-15 with decision wins in their final three bouts), but that win energized a team (and crowd) that had been getting pushed around the mat by the Illini -- and gave Iowa some breathing room heading into the final three matches.

And, as expected, Iowa took care of business in those matches, taking home decision victories in all three bouts.  Sammy Brooks had the most impressive win of the lot, taking home a 7-1 decision win over #20 Nikko Reyes.  Brooks exploded early with a double-leg takedown and added another takedown in the second to build his lead before riding Reyes the entire third period.  Brooks was trying to get nearfall points in the third, but he may have been better off letting Reyes go and trying to land a few more takedowns to get a major decision.  Nathan Burak ground out a 3-2 decision win at 197, getting a takedown in the third period for the decisive points (and fighting off a deep shot in the closing seconds of the match to avoid the upset), but it would be nice to see him step it up a gear and get some takedowns earlier in the match so we don't have to sweat so much in the third period.  Bobby Telford finished off the Iowa win with a 4-0 decision win of his own, scoring off an escape, riding time, and two stalling points.  It was disappointing that Telford wasn't able to get a takedown or turn Black when he had him on the mat, but Black spent so much hugging the mat or the out of bounds line that it was difficult for Telford to score.

All told, this performance wasn't nearly as glittering as Iowa's dominant win over Oklahoma State on Sunday -- there's room for improvement from every Iowa wrestler who took the mat on Friday. Gilman needs to be able to get back points so that he can turn major decisions into technical falls.  Clark needs to wrestle smarter and more aggressively in the first period.  Jeva and Burak just need to wrestle more aggressively, period.  Sorensen and Brooks needs to stay on the gas and turn comfortable decision wins into bonus point wins.  Kelly and Thomsen need to stay out of dangerous areas and avoid mental mistakes.  Meyer needs to get to his offense earlier in matches.  Telford needs to commit to his shots more.  This is a very good team, but Friday's performance highlighted several things keeping it from becoming a great team.  How well Iowa is able to address those shortcomings over the next few months might determine if they can add another Big Ten and/or NCAA championship to the trophy cabinet.

#1 IOWA 25, #11 ILLINOIS 12

125: #4 Thomas Gilman MAJ DEC (18-6) UN Dominic Oliveri (IOWA 4-0)
133: #5 Zane Richards DEC (6-5) #4 Cory Clark (IOWA 4-3)
141: #8 Josh Dziewa DEC (3-2) #13 Steven Rodrigues (IOWA 7-3)
149: #3 Brandon Sorensen DEC (11-5) UN Kyle Langenderfer (IOWA 10-3)
157: #5 Isaiah Martinez TECH FALL (21-6) #15 Michael Kelly (IOWA 10-8)
165: #8 Jackson Morse MAJ DEC (12-1) UN Logan Thomsen (ILLINOIS 12-10)
174: UN Alex Meyer FALL (6:59) #6 Zac Brunson (IOWA 16-12)
184: #8 Sammy Brooks DEC (7-1) #20 Nikko Reyes (IOWA 19-12)
197: #5 Nathan Burak DEC (3-2) UN Jeff Koepke (IOWA 22-12)
285: #1 Bobby Telford DEC (4-0) UN Brooks Black (IOWA 25-12)

Iowa returns to action on Friday, January 23, hosting #19 Northwestern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.  The dual meet begins at 7 PM CT; TV/streaming coverage TBD.