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Dispatches From Blogfrica: Black Shoe Diaries Talks Iowa-Penn State Wrestling

It's time for our annual tussle with Penn State -- but this isn't the Nittany Lion team you remember.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: bscaff from Black Shoe Diaries, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Penn State.

BONUS! I answered questions from bscaff at BSD right over here.

1) This is a really, really different-looking Penn State team to the one that Iowa fans have been accustomed to seeing over the past few years. No Taylor. No Ruth. No Nico. No Zain. (Maybe) no Altons. How has it been for Penn State fans to adjust to this strange new reality? As an Iowa fan, I know that it was weird to go from the Metcalf-Borschel-Keddy-Morningstar-etc. national title-winning team in 2010 to a very different-looking team in 2011.

BSCAFF: There have been peaks and valleys, brother. One of those valleys was a lethargic Sunday home dual against Purdue. Last year, Penn State cruised past your most hated rival with a +31 net advantage in takedowns. This year, the Boilers closed the gap to fewer than 5. The final tally was something awful, like 14-11, or thereabouts. Another valley was at Ohio State. Last year PSU was +29 in takedowns against the Buckeyes, and Retherford upset Stieber. This year? Minus 3 or 4, and Stieber scored a first period fall.

But there have been some awesome moments as well. The biggest for me was this year's Southern Scuffle. Penn State projected to a fourth place finish at the Scuffle based on seeds. They won the thing by a comfortable margin, without a single champ, but with 12 place winners out of 15 entrants (which did not include Nico and Zain). And when you compare that to the December 2010 Scuffle, where PSU tied Cornell for first, and had just 5 place winners, you have to be ecstatic about the program's transformation. Hooray, depth. If we can't have generational talents like Ruth, Taylor, or Metcalf every year for the rest of our lives - and no one but Dan Gable has pulled that off in the modern era - then packing the room full of talent is a very cool consolation.

2) It turned a few heads when it became apparent that two of Penn State's highest returning All-Americans, Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford, were going to be redshirting this season. There have been a lot of explanations thrown around -- the Olympics, ducking Logan Stieber, better opportunities for both guys to claim national championships next season, etc. What's your take on their redshirts this year? And will their return next season (they will return next year, right?) vault Penn State right back into the thick of the national championship hunt?

BSCAFF: Dan Gable appeared as a guest on Kyle Klingman's "On The Mat" (Waterloo, IA, I think) radio show about eight weeks ago. Kyle asked Gable what he thought of the Sandersons redshirting Nico and Zain. Coach Gable had just helped announce the PSU at Maryland dual (the Terps are terrible), so that may have adversely influenced his evaluation. But Coach Gable disagreed with the notion that Penn State was conceding this season. I'm paraphrasing him, but he saw talent that, although young, could develop during the season and score points by March.

So that was one opinion from mid-December. About 12 days ago, at the opposite end of the spectrum, J-Rob spared no feelings following the PSU-Minnesota dual when sharing his opinion. "They took themselves out of the title hunt," was his approximate choice of words. Asked his opinion of J-Rob's opinion, Cael said, "we'll see". (I get the sense that they aren't the best of friends, by the way).

My take is even simpler: it sucks. It sucks for the fans, who miss some great wrestlers. It sucks for the coaches, all of whom get asked about it often. And it also sucks for Nico and Zain because of the "ducking" tag that gets tossed around, which is insane. Nico and Zain are not afraid to step out on the mat against anyone. They both fully believe they'll win every tournament they enter, every year, at every level.

Looking at the situation unemotionally, I'm not sure I agree with Coach Gable or J-Rob. At this point of the season, we know Penn State is not as strong of a team with Nico and Zain only wearing warm ups. Arguing otherwise, with apologies to Coach Gable, is wishful thinking. So that criticism directed at Cael - this isn't your best possible team - is mostly fair. I write "mostly", because there's a chance that, like Coach Gable, you may have expected one thing in December, it hasn't completely worked out that way, and pulling their shirts six weeks before Nationals is kind of a raw deal.

On the other hand, I think J-Rob's take is a bit over the top. Penn State isn't the only school to use redshirts. Would Isiah Martinez not have been an improvement for Illinois last year? Or how about DSJ in 2010, instead of Jake Kerr? Northwestern is forfeiting 174-lbs all year long in order to save a top recruit's redshirt, but J-Rob's not blasting Drew Pariano. So, complaining about using redshirts is a matter of degree, then, right? If the redshirt candidate can't help you win a title, or, like DSJ in 2010, it's not certain that he could help you win (or that you'll need him to win) a title, then it's okay to redshirt the kid.

And that's where J-Rob lost me. His "took themselves out" line implies that he's a better evaluator of Penn State's team than Cael. I doubt anyone buys that, including J-Rob.

Nico and Zain might add 15 - 20 team points beyond what Conaway and Moss will produce at NCAAs. That's significant. But, according to our recently hashed out complaint-appropriateness theory, it's only significant if you believe Penn State will finish within 20 points of first place, because, in the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, "first or last". With just two "safe bet" All-Americans in the lineup (Brown and McIntosh), the cold hard math suggests 20 points won't make a difference. Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Cornell, Mizzou, and Okie State are all better positioned this season. One or two squads ahead of you is one thing - but it's at least 3, and possibly 6. That's a lot of things that need to fall your way.

Conceptually, using the redshirts this year makes sense to me, even if I don't like it as a fan (and I'll especially begrudge it on Sunday). Of course, if Penn State finishes 2nd at Nationals by 13 team points in six weeks, prepare for wailing and lamentations. Oh, and mocking, from the rest of the country. Lots and lots of mocking. But I don't think either of us sees that happening.

3) How excited are you (and the rest of the Penn State faithful) that Tony Ramos has exhausted his eligibility and can't suit up for Iowa on Sunday? (I promise you that the "Rony Tamos" that will take the mat for Iowa is a completely new person and not at all Ramos under a funny mustache.) I don't think there's any team that Tony loved wrestling as much as Penn State; he absolutely abused PSU guys over the years.

BSCAFF: Ramos scored 21 team points in 4 duals. Taylor scored 16, and Ruth 15, in those same four. Q, in 3 of those duals, scored 6 (and just a net of +3). So, yeah. Not cool. Not cool at all, Mr. Ramos.

But now that the pain, anguish, and mental torture is mostly over, I'll admit to some Stockholm Syndrome. Not because Ramos was Penn State's daddy at 133 for nearly half a decade, which he was, but because his intensity validated (for Iowa fans) and enhanced (for PSU fans) the rivalry. Ramos wasn't facing a top individual rival like Oliver or Stieber when he wrestled Penn State. So he apparently made it about outscoring Taylor or Ruth. It sucked to watch, but that's pretty cool. And he also provided some great soundbites. After Brands and Cael worked out the non-conference dual: "they fixed something the Big Ten screwed up". He pins his Buffalo opponent, comes off the mat, and speaks into the Hawk-Talk microphone: "Now I can look ahead to Penn State. Some guys are still wrestling, but my match is over. The Penn State dual is big."

How do you not love a guy like that? That's freaking awesome. Sure he ripped my heart out of my chest, and held it in front of my face like a trophy. Four different times, actually. But his swath of destruction served a higher purpose, greater than any one individual - intensifying a rivalry. This dual's a mark-your-calendar event for a lot of wrestling fans, not just Hawks and Lions. So, I suppose it was worth it.

4) As noted, there are (or have been, at various times) a whole bunch of new faces in the Penn State lineup this year. Which guys have shown the most promise and got you most excited about what the future might hold?

BSCAFF: You saw him last year, but my Most Improved Award goes to Jimmy Gulibon. Where he'd turn in a head-scratcher every other match in 2014, this year that head-scratcher is down to every 10th+ match. He's been much more consistent, in other words, and much more assertive out there. More confidence has produced better results, and ought to get him very close to, if not squarely on, the podium.

I'm handing my Best Freshman trophy to Matt McCutcheon. He's at 184, which is not a weight class that's historically kind or welcoming to freshmen. He'd have taken this award in a walk after the Scuffle, where he placed 4th, besting fellow frosh #14 Willie Miklus (Mizzou) and boat-racing Nebraska's #18 TJ Dudley via TF. But, like most freshmen, he had two stunningly bad outings in the last few weeks, vs. Minnesota and Michigan, that tempered a bit of the post-Scuffle enthusiasm. All things considered, though, "Mouse" still gets the nod from me.

The guys providing the most pure adrenaline for what the future might hold aren't in the lineup. You're familiar with Nico and Zain, of course. But I can't wait to introduce you to Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal, and Nick Nevills. They score a lot. It's really a lot of fun to watch. Nickal (174) won the Clarion Open, the Binghamton Open, and finished 2nd to Matt Brown at the Nittany Lion Open (7-10 decision). He had to MFF from the Southern Scuffle in the quarterfinals. Nick Nevills (285) made the semis at the Scuffle, but got injured in his match there with Okie State's Austin Marsden, and forfeit out to finish 6th (I think). Last, Jason Nolf (157) beat Cornell's #6 Realbuto (7-4) and Army's #12 Parsons (6-1) to make the Scuffle final, where he lost to Nebraska's #4 James Green because he took some ill-advised shots (dropping a 4-7 decision).

5) For Penn State to win this dual, they're probably going to need to pull off a few upsets. Which weights can Penn State steal from Iowa and how likely would you rank their upset odds at those weights?

BSCAFF: By InterMat ranking, Iowa's the favorite in 9 of 10 matches (197 being the exception). So Penn State needs to pull off 4 or 5 upsets, which is a pretty tall order. At 174, Matt Brown (#3) vs Stache (#2) is pretty close to a coin flip. So, that would be the match I give the best odds. And since a coin flip should be a 50/50 proposition, everything that follows is more favorable for Iowa than that.

Next, I'll tab 133. Gulibon (#7) has beaten Clark (#3), though it was in a post-season high school bout (say it with me: whoop-dee-doo). Gulibon's been wrestling better than last season (as detailed above), and Clark looks like he might still be adjusting to the stronger guys at this weight. I'll call it 40/60. Following that, I'm going to bunch together 125, 141, 149, and 285 at 35/65 odds because I'm thinking (hoping?) they're all last-takedown-wins type of matches. Gilman can score a ton of points, but from what I've seen, he seems to wrestle more conservatively against ranked opponents, which could leave 125 a tight match. Jeva is better than Moss at 141, but Jeva. At 149, Sorensen has been really impressive. But #18 Beitz just beat a top 10 ranked guy last week as well. What I need here is Sorensen to walk forward into an ankle pick, and/or, not to finish his own shot cleanly, and get into a rolly-polly scramble with Beitz. At 285, of course, Bobert (#2) is the better heavy than Lawson (#6). But it's heavyweight. They're (practically) all one-move matches.

Last, way down at 15/85 type of odds, I'll stick 165 and 184. Garett Hammond (not ranked at 165) has looked bad of late, but he can scramble. And #16 Matt McCutcheon probably needs #8 Sammy Brooks to make a bad mistake or three - which Sammy's done, against Okie State's Boyd. But, yeah. I'm not really expecting any slip-ups here.

Whoops - I forgot 157. Dylan Alton probably sits this dual out because of his shoulder. So, you'll likely see either freshman Cody Law, who is a young Mike Kelly clone, or junior 149-lber Luke Frey, who is a Mark Perry, boots-in, I-score-best-from-top type of guy. Given the many possibilities, I think Vegas takes 157 off the board.

6) OK, put aside the overall dual score. Which one match match are you dying to see? What match-up gets your blood pumping and is most likely to produce some fireworks on Sunday?

BSCAFF: I like 133. Gulibon and Clark are very similar in style. They're both going to pound on your head, and attack all seven minutes. I think Gulibon might have a slight edge in quickness, but I'd give Clark the edge in scrambling. This should be non-stop action between two very tough, very physical, and evenly matched opponents. So that's the one I'm dying to see.

Most likely to produce fireworks? Get ready to pass out from shock: 141. Call it stupidity, call it whatever you want - probably stupidity - I have a feeling that this match is something other than a 3-2 snorefest. Jeva's back in his home state, and he comes out firing shots - hahahah no. But Moss won't be content to stand around and stare, so something is going to happen. What? I dunno. Jeva's crafty, funky, and can scramble; Moss isn't very crafty, but he's a thrower. I think one of them hits a 5-point move. Hopefully it's Moss, and it blows the lid off of the Bryce Jordan Center. Wouldn't that be awesome?

7) Iowa wrestled in front of 13,000+ fans in Minneapolis on Friday night, but it sounds like they're going to wrestle in front of an even bigger crowd on Sunday afternoon. Is the Iowa-PSU dual at the Bryce Jordan Center sold out? Is it going to break the NCAA attendance record that PSU and Pitt set last year?

BSCAFF: Yessir, that's the plan. Your #1 Hawks will be wrestling in front of 30,000 fans (combined) in back-to-back away meets (sorry Maryland), which has to be some kind of record. Penn State's Jordan Center normally seats around 14,000 and change. But for wrestling they add seats on the floor, and roll the mat onto a stage. The published expectation is to eclipse the 16,000 barrier.

So, hooray for wrestling. Rutgers set a dual attendance record this year (two or three times, actually). Maryland I believe has done the same (or will on Friday night). Virginia Tech set a record when Ohio State traveled down there to start the year. Wrestling's the fastest growing sport at the D3 level, said someone, somewhere. Fresno State continues to claim that they're bringing D1 wrestling back. ESPN's ratings for the NCAA championships have exploded. And Iowa City will, I'm betting, put out some tremendous National Duals attendance figures in a few weeks. It's all happening dot gif. Pretty great, right?

REMINDER: My responses to bscaff's questions are available right here.

Thanks for being a good sport, bscaff, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped on Sunday. You can check out the Black Shoe Diaries crew at Black Shoe Diaries. You can also follow BSD on Twitter at @BSDtweet. The Iowa-Penn State dual meet is in State College, PA on Sunday, February 8, and is scheduled to start at 12:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.