A tough loss on the road to a lesser-ranked team could serve as a wake-up call or reality check to most defending national championship teams, demanding a revamping of the lineup or full alterations to its preparation strategies.
Not the Penn State wrestling squad.
The Nittany Lions were thrilled with the hostile environment where more than 15,000 fans packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch Iowa beat Penn State 22-16 on Friday night. Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said the match served as a key measuring point for his team, where his wrestlers were “an inch off” in some matches.
Penn State lost six of 10 bouts against the Hawkeyes but one (125) came in sudden victory and two others (157 and 174) by one-point deficits on late Iowa counter takedowns.
“I think it was a great test for us and anytime you have a tough match it really kind of throws it in your face what you need to work on,” Sanderson said. “We have some small technical things. We were turning left in stead of turning right type of things on a few finishes away from winning a dual meet. That’s motivating and keeps our heads up.”
Penn State, previously the top-ranked team in the country. Saw its stock drop as the Nittany Lions (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) fell to No. 3 with Oklahoma State and Iowa taking Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
But the Nittany Lions rebounded in convincing fashion, decking then-No. 6 Illinois 37-0 two days later in the Fighting Illini’s Huff Hall.
“Our guys did what they were supposed to do,” Sanderson said of his team’s response to the Iowa loss. “It doesn’t mean that we were happy to lose by any means. I hate losing. We’ll be a better team.”
After wrestling seven of their first 10 events at home to start the season, Penn State wrestlers were excited to go on the road to one of the most wrestling-obsessed states on Friday.
Only senior Bryan Pearsall had ever wrestled in a dual meet against the Hawkeyes in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the rest were thrilled to finally get the chance.
“It was a great atmosphere for wrestling,” Penn State senior Quentin Wright said. “We had a lot of fun out there. Any time you wrestle, you want to be in that atmosphere.”
The announced attendance was 15,077 and the majority of those fans were rooting against the Nittany Lions, sometimes with harsh chants and cheers. For Andrew Alton, it was nice being the villain for once.
“I thought the environment was great,” Penn State’s 149-pounder said. “It was one-of-a-kind, 15,000-plus people. It’s fun but it’s also crazy. Great experience.”
It was tough enough for Sanderson and his staff to juggle between two talented heavyweights in Jon Gingrich and Jimmy Lawson throughout the first part of the season.
Eventually, Gingrich won the position battle beating Lawson in a final wrestle-off in mid-January. And while No. 17 Gingrich was beaten handily by No. 6 Bobby Telford, 9-2, on Friday and Lawson stepped in to batter Illinois’ Chris Lopez, 9-4, two days later, Sanderson doesn’t envision another position battle.
Sanderson did note that nothing is finalized until weigh-ins for the Big Ten tournament, however.
“Gingrich was sick throughout the week. He wasn’t really getting any better so we gave Lawson a chance and he wrestled really well,” Sanderson said.
Lawson went after Lopez late, cutting the Illinois fill-in with just one second left looking to get another takedown.
“We don’t want our guys looking at the clock,” Sanderson said. “He obviously wasn’t looking at the clock so that’s a good thing.”
Lawson hasn’t lost and confidence either since transferring from Monmouth University where he played defensive tackle for the football team. He’s adjusted nicely to Penn State and was excited he got another shot to wrestle in a dual.
It was Lawson’s first dual-meet bout since Penn State’s match against Lock Haven on Dec. 15.
“When I came in I wanted to compete,” Lawson said. “I’d been out of the game for a couple of years. So far, obviously I haven’t had it end the way I wanted to but anything can happen. There’s still opportunity there. I’ve just got to want it.”
Although he’s just 1-2 in his last three bouts and has seen his stock drop from No. 3 to No. 5 in the national rankings, there are no confidence issues for 174-pounder Matt Brown on his end or the coaching staff’s
Brown lost a crucial bout to Iowa’s No. 4 Mike Evans on Friday in a match Brown looked to have wrapped up with an acrobatic pinning combination late in the third. But Evans held onto one of Brown’s ankles for dear life, preventing Brown from getting a takedown. Evans eventually slipped out of Brown’s grasp for a counter takedown to post a 4-3 win.
That match followed one against Nebraska’s No. 2 Robert Kokesh in which Brown was nearly pinned in the second period and lost 10-7 despite cradling Kokesh late. Time ran out before Brown could lock up the fall.
“I’ve thought about it a few times. That’s just an area that Matt needs to work in,” Sanderson said of the Brown-Evans match. “He’s so quick to his finishes, generally, and explosive that he needs to spend some time in those scramble situations. That’s an easy fix for him. It’s just a matter of putting some time into there.”
No. 2-ranked 165-pounder David Taylor suffered a scare against No. 8 Conrad Polz on Sunday during Penn State’s win against Illinois.
Taylor took a 6-2 lead into the third period and worked for more points against Polz, trying to turn the Illinois wrestler to his back. But Polz countered and turned over top of Taylor and caught the reigning Hodge Trophy winner on his back. With just five seconds left, however, Taylor was able to fight off the pin and hang on for a 14-7 win.
It was the first time Taylor failed to earn bonus points in 33 bouts.
“Polz was basing out pretty hard for a lot of the match and David was doing everything he could to get him on his back and he just went a little too hard and Polz flipped on top of him and I’m glad there were only five seconds left because it was like a bad dream,” Sanderson said.