Sunday's highly-anticipated dual meet between Iowa and Penn State was not one for aesthetes. It wasn't a showcase of the sport at its most electrifying or most action-packed. It didn't feature any breathtaking displays of athleticism or dominance. There were no bonus point victories; hell, there were scarcely any impressive takedowns to be seen. (There were also barely any takedowns at all -- 9 for Penn State and just 8 for Iowa.) For an event that was viewed by the second-biggest crowd to ever watch a dual meet (15,967 -- 29 short of what Penn State and Pitt drew for a dual meet last season) it was, unfortunately, not exactly a winning advertisement for the sport.
Which is too bad because the atmosphere itself was absolutely electric. Penn State's crowd was huge, vocal, and enthusiastic. They were deafening when the Penn State wrestlers gave them something to cheer about, like Jimmy Gulibon's last-second match-winning takedown against Cory Clark at 133 or Garret Hammond's stunning late takedown to upset Nick Moore at 165. Everything about the presentation of the dual meet -- the lighting, the entrances, even the smoke machines -- was great and made it seem like a huge deal. (It also made me excited to see what Iowa does for the National Duals in a few weeks -- the bar has been raised a bit, Carver.) It's a shame the actual wrestling didn't live up to the presentation.
The two biggest matches of the day were probably 174 (the most hotly-anticipated individual matchup of the dual) and 285 (since it decided the winner of the dual)... and they were both utter snoozers. In both matches, riding time points provided critical -- Telford rode Jimmy Lawson for the entire second period at 285 (and picked up a penalty point for stalling on Lawson in the process, since the Penn State man proceeded to do absolutely nothing on the mat), while Matt Brown rode Mike Evans for the entire third period at 174 -- and nothing says edge-of-your-seat excitement like one guy laying atop another guy for several minutes. Both matches also featured plenty of cautious circling and fierce collar-and-elbow tie-ups -- also surefire crowd pleasers in the excitement category. Both matches were complete and utter duds -- not a good look for the wrestlers themselves, their teams, or the sport itself.
This dual meet was about the grind. Iowa ground out an 18-12 win (and cliched a share of the Big Ten dual meet championship in the process -- /furious wanking motion) in the dual by taking six of the ten matches, all via regular decisions. Two of Iowa's six wins came without the benefit of a single takedown (Mike Kelly won with the aid of three reversals at 157, while Bobby Telford won with an escape, a riding time point, and a penalty point for stalling at 285). One Iowa win (Thomas Gilman at 125) came via a riding time point. Another win came with Iowa simply trying to hang on at the end (149). (In fact, finishing matches badly was a recurrent theme for Iowa in this dual, especially at the lower weights.) This was not the explosive, high-flying, point-scoring Iowa team that clobbered Oklahoma State in Stillwater a month ago, nor the team that put the boots to Minnesota (more or less) in a 23-12 win a week ago. There are explanations that can be proffered -- Iowa had to deal with the grind of traveling to the East Coast and had wrestled a dual on Friday evening while Penn State had been off since last weekend -- but how much stock you want to put in those is up to you.
As Iowa fans, the lack of offense on display from the Hawkeyes was most troubling. Iowa recorded just one takedown after the 149 lb. match -- from Sammy Brooks at 184 lbs. (And though he won 7-1 he also notched just one takedown; his other points came via escape and a 3-point nearfall, although at least the latter featured some actual excitement on the mat -- a rarity in this dual.) That Iowa won two other matches after 149 without takedowns (157 and 285) is a testament to the fact that there're more than one way to skin a cat (or win a wrestling match), although not necessarily a testament to excitement (although the reversalpalooza that was the 157 lb. match had its own odd charms). Iowa wrestlers didn't even take many particularly good shots in the final six matches of the dual. It's hard to score if you don't shoot and it's awfully hard to win if you don't score off your own offense.
The high point of the dual for Iowa was probably the back-to-back wins at 141 and 149. Josh Dziewa put together one of his better performances of the year at 141. He had the job of quieting the raucous BJC crowd after Jimmy Gulibon's last second win at 133 and he did just that with aplomb -- he came out focused and aggressive and scored a takedown off his own shot early in the first period. It was an uncharacteristic performance from Jeva -- but a very welcome one. It didn't entirely last -- he seemed more concerned with simply preserving his lead in the latter stages of the match rather than trying to push for a major decision and bonus points -- but it was still a very nice win for Jeva at a key point in the dual. A win for Moss would have had the PSU faithful frothing at the mouth and who knows how the rest of the dual might have played out at that point. Brandon Sorensen followed up Jeva's win at 141 with a win of his own at 149, although it was closer than it needed to be at 6-4. Sorensen's offense looked crisp after he walked into an early ankle pick by Zach Beitz and he was frustratingly close to finishing several more takedowns near the edge during the match. He did slow down in the third period, though, which enabled Beitz to come very close to tying the match up and sending it to sudden victory.
The low point of the dual was probably the back-to-back frustration at 165 and 174. At 165, Nick Moore lost a match that virtually everyone -- even most Penn State fans -- had assumed he would win. Moore appeared to be screwed out of a takedown call near the edge at one point (and it was very surprising that no replay was used to review that call, especially after the bevy of replay reviews during last week's Iowa-Minnesota dual), but it's hard to get too worked up about that when Hammond was the more aggressive wrestler in the match -- he was in fairly deep on three separate shot attempts in the first period alone, only to be stymied by Moore's hip control. When he again got in deep on Moore's leg late in the third and lifted him up and powered him down to the mat for the winning takedown, it was fully deserved. Moore is capable of wrestling much better than that -- we've seen it from him in thepast -- and he needs to if he's going to have any hope of ending his career with the success he'd like to have.
Mike Evans' loss at 174 was far less shocking -- he and Matt Brown are very evenly matched and that matchup was truly a toss-up -- but his performance was alarmingly poor. Evans did little in the first period, struggled to control Brown from the top position in the second, and failed to get an escape in the third period. It seemed like his strategy was to get a reversal in the third and ride Brown out for the win, but that plan was riddled with flaws. For one, he was rarely active enough on bottom to threaten a reversal. For another, he had struggled to ride Brown in the second period, so it's not clear why he might have expected to ride him out in the third. And, finally, he spent so much time getting ridden that he was going to concede a riding time point to Brown, which would have sent the match to sudden victory anyway. Or maybe he was hoping to get an escape earlier in the third and take the match to sudden victory and duplicate the success he had against Logan Storley a week ago. Either way, it was a poor gameplan and a deservedly lousy result for Evans.
There were other highlights on Sunday: Mike Kelly rebounded from a loss on Friday to find a way to win even without doing much of anything from his feet. Scoring from your feet is still the best way to win a match, but it was impressive to see Kelly find another way to win, too. Sammy Brooks picked up a much-needed win for Iowa at 184 and maintained his dominance over that weight in the Big Ten. It wasn't quite as much action as we like to see from Sammy, but he was able to get a nice takedown and use his skill on the mat to tilt McCutcheon and get some back points. After the nerve-shredding finishes of several Iowa matches earlier in the dual, it was nice to have one match that was just a simple, no-frills win for the good guys. And while Telford's match was unexciting, it was a prototypical heavyweight match and it's good to see that he's eminently capable of winning matches like those. He'll need to win matches just like that at some point in the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament.
But there were other concerns, as well. Thomas Gilman scored an early takedown against Jordan Conaway at 125 and rode him for the remainder of the first period... and then seemed to decide that his day was done. He retreated into the same conservative shell we've seen in previous matches against highly-ranked wrestlers -- and it very nearly cost him the win on Sunday. Had Gilman been dinged a second time for stalling in the third period, I wouldn't have complained. It's the same story with him: he has good offense, but he seems to struggle to trust it against tougher opponents.
Meanwhile, at 133, Cory Clark decided to invert his usual method of losing. Rather than getting caught flat-footed, giving up early takedowns, and digging an early hole for himself that he wasn't able emerge from in the third period, Clark actually went out and grabbed an early lead against Gulibon... and failed to hold onto it, losing to a big late move when he got out of position. All of Clark's losses this season have been close and frustrating (for him more than anyone else, I'd imagine); hopefully he can make the necessary tweaks to his approach to turn these maddening losses into more satisfying victories.
Nathan Burak also contributed to the disappointment side of the ledger for Iowa, losing a lopsided 7-1 decision to Morgan McIntosh. McIntosh is very good, but Burak had wrestled him very well a season ago; here, he gave up a pair of takedowns and nearly got put on his back. Maybe it was just a bad day, but Burak has struggled to score against all three of the Big Ten's top 197ers this year -- McIntosh, Minnesota's Scott Schiller, and Ohio State's Kyle Snyder. That's not the most reassuring sign with the Big Ten Tournament looming.
A day later, it's still somewhat hard to know how to process this result for Iowa. On one hand, they went into the most hostile environment they'll face all year and found a way to win, even though their own performances were far from their best. On the other hand, they really did look poor at times and the way they lost several matches (lack of offense, excess conservatism) is a flaw that's persisted to varying extents for a while now. Ultimately, I think I'm inclined to not worry about this result too much -- it's fairly uncharacteristic of the way Iowa has wrestled for most of this season and I think it makes more sense to go with the entire body of work we've seen from this Iowa team. National Duals (just a few weeks away) and the Big Ten Tournament (just a month away) will give us a much better idea if we need to start panicking about this team -- or if we need to start clearing some space in the trophy cabinet.
And, finally, kudos to the Big Ten Network for finally -- FINALLY! -- implementing a riding time clock on their broadcast. Having that is something that's been long, long, long overdue... but better late than never. Thanks, BTN.
#1 IOWA 18, #5 PENN STATE 12
125: #5 Thomas Gilman DEC (6-5) #8 Jordan Conaway (IOWA 3-0)
133: #7 Jimmy Gulibon DEC (8-5) #3 Cory Clark (TIED 3-3)
141: #6 Josh Dziewa DEC (9-4) UN Kade Moss (IOWA 6-3)
149: #2 Brandon Sorensen DEC (6-4) #18 Zach Beitz (IOWA 9-3)
157: #14 Mike Kelly DEC (7-4) UN Luke Frey (IOWA 12-3)
165: UN Garrett Hammond DEC (4-2) #7 Nick Moore (IOWA 12-6)
174: #3 Matt Brown DEC (2-0) #2 Mike Evans (IOWA 12-9)
184: #8 Sammy Brooks DEC (7-1) #17 Matt McCutcheon (IOWA 15-9)
197: #4 Morgan McIntosh DEC (7-1) #6 Nathan Burak (IOWA 15-12)
285: #2 Bobby Telford DEC (3-0) #6 Jimmy Lawson (IOWA 18-12)
NEXT: Iowa returns to Iowa City on Friday, February 13 (7 PM CT, BTN Plus) to face #16 Michigan (6-5 overall, 4-4 B1G) on Senior Night.