After a dominating Big Ten-opening win over Northwestern on Friday, the high-scoring Penn State wrestlers were slowed down a bit against Wisconsin at Rec Hall on Sunday.
Not only did the Nittany Lions drop two matches they were favored in, but the Badgers’ “forward pace” also kept some bonus points off the board, as Penn State recorded its first dual without a pin since Ohio State last February.
In the 24-13 win, top-ranked Penn State showed where some of its weaknesses lie, and coach Cael Sanderson was quick to put the blame upon himself.
“It’s up to the individuals, they have to choose to be ready to go,” Sanderson said, “but it’s my job to make sure I’m not over-training them the week of a match when we have travel, and we’re not over-running them.”
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Sanderson did not elaborate on what he meant by his wrestlers not being ready to go, or whether it had anything to do with making the nearly 600-mile trip back from Illinois after Friday’s match, but did allude to it several times throughout the post-match press conference.
Some of the vulnerability Penn State showed was in the lower half of its lineup, where the typically reliable sophomore Nick Lee dropped his first match of the season, and redshirt freshman Brady Berge ran out of steam and gave up the late takedown to also fall to an unranked opponent. Before Sunday, the No. 4-ranked Lee was 15-0, winning just one of his matches without bonus points.
“Again, what that comes back to in my mind is him not being ready to go, and that’s on me,’ Sanderson said of Lee. “Nick is always going to give his best effort. He’s just a great kid and works his tail off. That was a coaching error.”
Berge wrestled two consecutive matches in a weekend for the first time in his collegiate career this weekend. The Junior World bronze medalist was on a weight decent program in the beginning of the season to get down from 70 kilograms (about 154 pounds) to 149 pounds, and had been splitting time with fellow redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren.
Although he said Berge felt good weighing in two days in a row, Sanderson also said he might not have factored the traveling into getting Berge, and the others, prepared for Sunday.
“I think Berge is wrestling really well. Again, the same with Nick, he just didn’t have it. He jumped out to a 6-3 (lead), and just kind of looked like he ran out of gas,” Sanderson said. “He’s not a kid that runs out of gas, unless his coach doesn’t have him ready to go. I’m not worried about Brady. He is as tough as they come. It stinks he lost, but credit to his opponent.”
Even without Vincenzo Joseph at 165 pounds, Penn State’s big guns came out and did what they normally do — score points. However, the frustration was evident on some of the wrestlers’ faces as they were stopped short from their ultimate goal of putting guys on their backs.
With the Badgers leading 10-4, Penn State’s all-time pins leader Jason Nolf had the chance to tie things up with another fall. Although he got 11 takedowns and two nearfall points, the senior fell short from what he was clearly trying to do in choosing top in the third — getting the pin.
Prolific pinner Shakur Rasheed was held to a regular decision, and Bo Nickal was also denied the fall as his seven-straight pin streak was snapped against the Badgers.
“I don’t think we wrestled great; I don’t think that’s a secret,” Sanderson said of his team’s total effort. “We didn’t wrestle with a lot of fire, but usually that comes from feeling great, which that’s my job to make sure these guys feel good on match day. But also I think Wisconsin did a great job. (Coach Chris) Bono had them ready to go and they seized the moment in a couple of those matches, taking them to the end.”
Even though the Nittany Lions still won comfortably and held a 38-7 takedown advantage, the effort still fell short not only of the high expectations set by the fans, but also the expectations the coaches and wrestlers have for themselves. Fortunately for Penn State, there’s still two months to figure things out before the postseason.
“If guys lose a match, it’s got to hurt, it should hurt, but you got to learn from it. You’re not always going to feel great,” Sanderson said. “I think adversity’s always great preparation. I think our guys responded. It’s just a tough team.”
It’s not just the wrestlers, though, that Sanderson said can learn from this Big Ten-opening weekend. In his 10th year at the helm of Penn State, even with seven national championships under his belt, the coach made an honest assessment and said that yes, even he has some learning to do and adjustments to make.
“We’ve got a lot of positives and that’s what we are going to focus on,” he said. “I don’t like it when I don’t have the guys ready to go. I’m learning just like every other coach and every other kid. We are going to keep learning.”