A day after cruising to wins over UT-Chattanooga and Cornell, Iowa found themselves on the wrong end of a dual meet score for the first time all season, losing to Missouri, 18-12, in the finals of the NWCA National Duals. Iowa finishes the year 17-1 in dual meet competition this season.
There's not a lot to say about this dual: it was a poor performance virtually from beginning to end for Iowa. Missouri was bigger, stronger, smarter, and better able to execute their gameplans in matches. They were deserving winners. They were better than Iowa on top (by a lot, in most cases), better than Iowa on bottom (with a few exceptions), and (mostly) better from neutral as well. They won fair and square. Congratulations to them for that.
But this was yet another showcase event -- #1 team in the country versus #2 team in the country, the finals of an event that its organizers would like to make into a very big deal -- where the actual wrestling on display was about as exciting as watching someone vacuum. Seven of the ten matches today ended with 0-0 scores after the first period. And, for the most part, those 0-0 periods didn't exactly feature a lot of breathless action and great defense. No, they featured a lot of hand-fighting, a lot of tie-ups, a lot of circling. A lot of "feeling out." Not a lot of actual action. I don't excuse either team's performance here -- Iowa wrestlers were just as guilty of doing nothing as Missouri wrestlers, with a few exceptions*.
* Missouri's Lavion Mayes was absolutely not one of the do-nothing guys today and he put on a show in his 13-6 blasting of Josh Dziewa at 141. Kudos to him for reminding us how much it can be to see fast, explosive takedowns in action. The other first period takedowns were scored by Clark and Synon at 133 and Telford at heavyweight (!). (You know it's a dark day when heavyweight is one of the most action-packed matches of the day...) In total, there were 18 takedowns in yesterday's dual, with Missouri recording 12 (Mayes had literally half of Missouri's takedowns) and Iowa recording 6. Nine Missouri wrestlers combined for 6 takedowns, while ten Iowa wrestlers combined for 6 takedowns themselves -- and even that exaggerates the extent of the action a bit, because it includes late, fairly meaningless takedowns for Missouri (at 157) and for Iowa (at 285). If you were hoping to see exciting action from neutral and takedowns, I hope you caught the 141 lb match -- otherwise you were pretty much SOL.
But it sucked to watch. For the most part, you would have been better off skipping the first periods of the matches yesterday to go grab a bite to eat or sit on the toilet. Chances are you wouldn't have missed much. Not that there was a lot to see in the second or third periods yesterday, either -- unless you like riding time, that is.
Ah, riding time. Riding time, in its current form, is the bane of exciting wrestling. It is garbage. Missouri used it to their advantage today, but Iowa wrestlers certainly tried to do the exact same thing in some of their matches, too. Thomas Gilman's entire strategy today seemed to be to ride out Alan Waters in the second period, then take neutral in the third and avoid getting taken down by Waters (and maybe get a takedown of his own if he caught Waters in a bad position). It might have worked, too, if Waters hadn't been able to get an escape with 30 seconds to go in the second period. Drake Houdashelt used basically the same strategy at 149, only he was able to make it work and beat Brandon Sorensen.
Those two matches were the most pronounced examples, but a desire to ride just to rack up enough time to get a riding time point was evident in several other matches. Missouri was especially good at "riding to ride" -- "controlling" on top purely to rack up riding time -- and that was a key aspect in their victory over Iowa: they were great at spiral rides, shoving guys out-of-bounds on hard rides, and all the other little tricks wrestlers use to "control the action" (what a perverse expression) from the top position. And, again, I don't mean this as sour grapes at Missouri, because Iowa wrestlers have done the same thing -- and probably would have done the same thing yesterday in several cases if they could have. Thomas Gilman, Brandon Sorensen, and Bobby Telford are no slouches at putting a spiral ride on guys themselves. Derek St. John enjoyed a lot of success in his career by mastering riding time. Tony Ramos finally won Big Ten and NCAA titles last year, in part by utilizing a lot of the above-mentioned techniques.
But it sucks. It's not remotely fun to watch. There were riding time points awarded in nearly every match yesterday and in several cases the wrestler earning the riding time point had much more than a minute of riding time. And yet for all those rides, for all that "control" from the top position, there seemed to be precious few examples of wrestlers on top legitimately trying to turn their opponent and score nearfall points -- you know, the entire point of having mat wrestling at all. Cory Clark tried to turn his opponent at 133 (to no avail, though it's hard when your opponent is hellbent on attaching himself to the mat like velcro; Synon was dinged for stalling twice in the third period and could have been dinged at least twice as much; in fact, the ref would have been completely within his rights to DQ him for repeated stalling infractions, though no ref today would ever have the balls to do that in such a high-profile event) and Mike Evans made a few late efforts at turning Eblen at 174. Everyone else -- Iowa and Missouri wrestlers alike -- just seemed to be riding for the sake of riding.
That approach isn't illegal -- it's perfectly within the established rules (though the distinction between "a good, hard ride" and "stalling" can be very fuzzy) and scoring guidelines of the sport. It isn't even unsporting -- depending on how you define sporting behavior (i.e., to win by any means necessary or to win in a "purer" form -- though what that might be is wildly debatable), at least. But this approach is death for this sport if it persists. It makes the sport unappealing and unentertaining to the people who already like the sport and if you're struggling to retain current fans, good luck trying to attract new fans.
I don't even see the point of discussing Iowa's performance on Sunday in any greater detail*. Missouri out-wrestled Iowa on Sunday and deservedly won the dual. But in this situation it truly isn't just about winning. If Gilman had been effective in his gameplan and beaten Waters 1-0 on a riding time point (again, he was probably 30 seconds away from doing exactly that) and if Sammy Brooks* had wrestled for Iowa at 184 and grabbed a win for Iowa at that weight (not exactly an impossible accomplishment, considering that Iowa's back-up 174er took Missouri's starting 184er to the limit in that match), Iowa would have won the dual 18-12. Sure, it would have been nice to win -- winning is always nice -- but it still would have been turgid dual to watch and it would still would have been an utterly embarrassing advertisement for the sport.
* My only additional Iowa-related point is that it was very disappointing to see guys like Gilman and Sorensen turn in such disappointing performances from neutral yesterday. Iowa's senior class -- Dziewa, Kelly, Moore, Evans, Telford -- are not offensive dynamos from neutral, either, but we've known that about them for a while. Gilman and Sorensen have been more willing to open up from their feet in the past (though Gilman has also adopted a very conservative approach in several other matches against top-ranked opponents), so it was very discouraging to see them also falling victim to the no offense bug. I don't believe that Tom and Terry Brands are saying one thing in interviews (the same thing they did themselves in their own matches -- i.e., action action action) and then secretly training their wrestlers to do another thing in matches, but there is a huge disconnect between what too many Iowa wrestlers (apparently) do in practice and what they say they're going to do in matches and what they actually do in matches.
Wrestling can -- and should, IMO -- be fun to watch. Takedowns are fun. Pins are fun. Scrambles are fun. Tilts and turns on the mat are fun. Spiral rides are not fun. Hand-fighting is not fun. Tie-ups (if they don't lead to anything) are not fun. Wrestling on the edge of the mat is not fun. I don't know what the solutions are -- perhaps new black line rules, maybe more draconian measures regarding stalling, definitely better (and more assertive) officiating -- but without some sort of solutions, college wrestling seems destined to get ever more boring to watch -- until one day it discovers that there's hardly anyone left to watch it at all.
#2 Missouri 18, #1 Iowa 12
125: #2 Alan Waters DEC (5-4 OT) #5 Thomas Gilman (MISSOURI 3-0)
133: #6 Cory Clark DEC (7-2) UN Zach Synon (TIE 3-3)
141: #5 Lavion Mayes DEC (13-6) #6 Josh Dziewa (MISSOURI 6-3)
149: #4 Drake Houdashelt DEC (2-1) #2 Brandon Sorensen (MISSOURI 9-3)
157: #12 Joey Lavallee DEC (6-1) #16 Mike Kelly (MISSOURI 12-3)
165: #9 Nick Moore DEC (3-2) UN Mike England (MISSOURI 12-6)
174: #3 Mike Evans DEC (4-1) #5 John Eblen (MISSOURI 12-9)
184: #14 Willie Miklus DEC (6-5) UN Alex Meyer (MISSOURI 15-9)
197: #1 J'Den Cox DEC (4-3) #6 Nathan Burak (MISSOURI 18-9)
285: #4 Bobby Telford DEC (6-2) #16 Devin Mellon (MISSOURI 18-12)
NEXT: Iowa has two weeks off until the Big Ten Tournament in Columbus on March 7-8.