Cael Sanderson talks injuries ahead of the Ohio State dual
Every year when Penn State’s wrestling schedule gets released, fans are probably searching for when the Nittany Lions will take on Ohio State.
It has turned into almost a bigger rivalry than football’s. Rec Hall sold out last year, and the 13,000-seat St. John Arena is nearly sold out this year in Columbus, promising to provide another electric environment.
Friday night’s match will be very similar to last year’s barn burner inside Rec Hall. It might not be No. 1 vs. No. 2, but there could be up to 18 ranked wrestlers on the mat. In addition, nine of the 10 bouts could be ranked wrestler versus ranked wrestler.
Here’s how we think Friday night will play out, starting with 125 pounds:
125 pounds: PSU’s Devin Schnupp (6-11) vs. Malik Heinselman (14-5)
Muthler: Don’t let the fact that this is the lone bout projected not to have a single ranked wrestler diminish its importance. Schnupp has an opportunity to wrestle a very close match here in a battle where every bonus point is going to matter, and even a mild upset would completely change the trajectory of the entire dual. However, Heinselman should not be overlooked just because he’s not ranked. The three-time Colorado state champ was ranked No. 1 at 106 pounds by FloWrestling at the time of his commitment in 2017. Since removing his redshirt against Indiana on Jan. 11, the true freshman has gone 1-2 in dual competition and won the Edinboro Open last weekend. Against common opponents this season, both lost to Michigan’s Drew Mattin by a margin of 6 points, meanwhile Schnupp beat Indiana’s Liam Cronin 5-2, who Heinselman lost to in November, then beat by 4 points last weekend. The Buckeye should have the edge here, but Schnupp will certainly fight for a full 7 minutes.
Prediction: Heinselman by decision, 8-4
Cobler: On paper, Heinselman is the odds-on favorite. Taking a look at their common opponents, Heinselman holds a 2-3 record compared to Schnupp’s 1-4. However, if you look into those common opponents a little closer, Heinselman and Schnupp have losses to Michigan’s Mattin and Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley. They each lost to Mattin by six points — Schnupp 6-0 and Heinselman 12-6. Against Foley, that’s a bigger story. Schnupp lost 6-2 in last season’s dual against the Spartans. Heinselman just lost to Foley about a month ago by a score of 19-6. If this match was in Rec Hall, I’d give Schnupp the upset, but on the road in the hostile environment of St. John Arena, I’m going to go with Heinselman.
Prediction: Heinselman by decision, 6-3
133 pounds: PSU’s No. 15 Roman Bravo-Young (15-2) or Scott Stossel (4-5) vs. No. 6 Luke Pletcher (18-2)
Muthler: Prior to the Bravo-Young injury, this bout was likely going to be Penn State’s best shot at stealing one from the Bucks. With the injury, Penn State is now going to have to fight a little harder to extend its unbeaten dual streak to 56. Coach Cael Sanderson said Tuesday that Bravo-Young was “expected” to wrestle, and the true freshman is the only name Penn State has listed at 133 pounds this weekend. However, Sanderson has repeatedly said his priorities are winning national championships and the long-term success of his wrestlers. With that in mind, I’m inclined to think Bravo-Young sits at least another week to heal, even with the dual streak on the line. If that’s the case, the good news for Penn State is that Pletcher isn’t much of a bonus-point guy. He has, however, scored bonus in eight of his 18 wins so far this season, including three pins and two technical falls. Against a backup, and knowing how important those extra points will be Friday, Pletcher shouldn’t have any problem coming up with bonus.
Prediction: Pletcher by major decision, 15-5
Cobler: I really wish Bravo-Young was healthy enough to wrestle. I just don’t think he is, and I’m guessing we probably won’t see him again until maybe next weekend at the earliest. Bravo-Young’s pace is so high and, against a guy like Pletcher, that could’ve meant big things for the Nittany Lions. Pletcher isn’t the flashiest of wrestlers and is quite content winning matches 2-1. I’m going to bet that Buckeyes coach Tom Ryan and teammates might put a bug in Pletcher’s ear to push for bonus points in this match. Should Stossel fill in again for Bravo-Young, that might be a good thing. Yes, Stossel got tech’d by Michigan’s Stevan Micic, but Pletcher is no Micic, who dominated Pletcher 14-1 two weeks ago. I see Pletcher winning, but I don’t know if he gets bonus points.
Prediction: Pletcher by decision, 7-4
141 pounds: PSU’s No. 5 Nick Lee (20-1) vs. No. 2 Joey McKenna (14-0)
Muthler: With Bravo-Young at less than full health, all eyes turn to 141 as upset potential for Penn State. Lee wrestled the two-time All-American extremely close last season as a true freshman, losing 7-6. The pair split takedowns with two apiece, but McKenna used a strong ride in the second period to put Lee in a hole he couldn’t quite dig himself out of. Having lost by just a riding-time point last year, Lee said on Tuesday that he’s been specifically working on his bottom game to prepare for this bout. Although I do believe Lee does have what it takes to be able to knock off McKenna, I do not believe that the senior national championship contender will allow it to happen in his home gym.
Prediction: McKenna by decision, 8-5
Cobler: This could be the start of eight straight ranked vs. ranked wrestler matchups. What better way to start that string than with this matchup? These two are so evenly matched, and it showed in last year’s dual inside Rec Hall. McKenna topped Lee by one point and that point was a riding-time point. It was that loss that stuck with Lee as it showed he had a weakness in his game. One thing that may be in Lee’s favor — McKenna didn’t wrestle last weekend due to an undisclosed injury. Ryan mentioned to media Thursday that they have “a couple of guys who aren’t 100 percent, but they’re going to go.” Now, whether or not McKenna is one of those guys remains to be seen. If he is, I think Lee pulls an upset here to stun the Ohio State crowd.
Prediction: Lee by decision, 8-7
149 pounds: PSU’s No. 11 Brady Berge (14-2) or Jarod Verkleeren (14-5) vs. No. 3 Micah Jordan (18-1)
Muthler: Regardless of who wrestles here for Penn State, it should be a fairly easy win for Jordan. The two-time All-American has a motor that only the likes of Jason Nolf and a few others can shut down. Berge might have a better chance at keeping bonus points off the board, but the redshirt freshman has not wrestled in the past three duals. Verkleeren came out strong last weekend against Michigan’s Malik Amine but ended up putting himself in some bad positions that the Wolverine took advantage of. If Verkleeren does the same thing against Jordan, the senior is likely to capitalize, then capitalize again and again. The damage should be less than Jordan’s tech fall over Bo Pipher last season, but this will still be one of the Buckeyes’ best opportunities for bonus points.
Prediction: Jordan by major decision, 17-6
Cobler: Two years ago, Jordan took on Zain Retherford, and Retherford gave the young Buckeye a lesson. It was to the tune of a technical fall loss. Jordan is probably glad that now he doesn’t have to worry about seeing Retherford again. This time around, Jordan will be the teacher. If Berge is able to get back into the lineup, the lesson might not be as severe as what Jordan went through two years ago. Either way you look at it, Jordan is coming out of this with bonus points. The question is, how many bonus points is he getting?
Prediction: Jordan by major decision, 15-5
157 pounds: PSU’s No. 1 Jason Nolf (19-0) vs. No. 6 Ke-Shawn Hayes (16-5)
Muthler: Penn State will be favored for the first time in this dual just ahead of the halfway mark, with a lot of digging out to do. Fortunately for Penn State, scoring bonus points is a specialty of the wrestlers that make up the back portion of Penn State’s lineup, starting with Nolf. And knowing how important those bonus points will be to his team, expect Nolf to go for broke. Like his teammate Retherford last year, Nolf will be looking for the pin against Hayes. However, Hayes was able to keep off his back against Retherford — even taking him down twice before giving up the tech — and will be looking to the same thing against similarly dangerous Nolf. Ultimately, Nolf will end up with bonus points in this bout, the question is how many.
Prediction: Nolf by major decision, 19-8
Cobler: If the dual goes as I’m predicting, Nolf will come to the mat with his team in a slightly smaller hole than against the Wolverines last Friday. His opponent is good but not as good as Alec Pantaleo, who beat Hayes 3-2 two weeks ago. Hayes, though, can’t catch a break against the Nittany Lions. He had to face Retherford last season and was able to stay off his back in a technical fall loss. Now, he gets Penn State’s all-time pins leader in Nolf. Nolf’s pace is slightly higher than Retherford’s, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolf were to get a fall here. Don’t be surprised if you see Nolf hit the Winn-Dixie a time or two either.
Prediction: Nolf by technical fall, 25-10
165 pounds: PSU’s No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (17-0) vs. No. 12 Te’Shan Campbell (9-2)
Muthler: If Ohio State wrestles Campbell here over Kaleb Romero, it will be only one of two repeat bouts from last season, the other being 141. Last year, this bout was on track to be a regular decision — until after the second period when Joseph glimpsed at his corner, then immediately went for the near-side cradle to start the third. He didn’t get that, but played a game of catch and release with the Buckeye for the rest of the match to secure the major. Joseph may have a propensity toward wrestling close matches, but when he knows his team needs bonus, like they did last year, he can turn it on.
Prediction: Joseph by major decision, 15-4
Cobler: Ryan came out on Thursday and said Campbell would be the one going of the two possible starters listed for the Buckeyes. The other possible wrestler was Romero. It doesn’t matter who Ohio State throws out there, it isn’t going to be pretty. Joseph is wrestling out of his mind this season. It is the best he’s looked even though he’s already won two NCAA titles, both over former Illinois great Isaiah Martinez. Yes, I know Joseph is coming off a sudden-victory win over Michigan’s Logan Massa but it’s always close when those two wrestle. Joseph dispatched Campbell last season 12-3 and Campbell even was disqualified from a match last year for too many stalls. Either way, bonus points coming Penn State’s way here.
Prediction: Joseph by major decision, 13-4
174 pounds: PSU’s No. 1 Mark Hall (19-0) vs. No. 18 Ethan Smith (14-5)
Muthler: Like Joseph, Hall has a way of giving Penn State fans heart palpitations, dragging his matches out to the very end. But also like Joseph, the past national champ is good for turning on the scoring when he needs to. The freshman Smith does have a few bad losses this season — to Edinboro’s Jacob Oliver, Standford’s Rico Stormer and getting pinned by Arizona State’s Kordell Norfleet up a weight at 184 — but he did wrestle close bouts in losses against No. 4 Daniel Lewis (6-1) and No. 3 Amine (3-2). Hall should be able to post a solid victory here, but the freshman might just have enough of what it takes to keep it to a decision.
Prediction: Hall by decision, 12-5
Cobler: To be honest, I had never heard of Ethan Smith at all until this week. I did some digging and watched a video of him against Wisconsin’s Ryan Christensen. Smith, to me, is built like Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia. We know how much trouble Valencia’s length gave Hall problems before. I think that Smith’s length will cause problems for Hall and keep him from scoring bonus points.
Prediction: Hall by decision, 8-4
184 pounds: PSU’s No. 2 Shakur Rasheed (15-0) vs. No. 1 Myles Martin (13-0)
Muthler: With Bo Nickal now up at 197 pounds, Martin will be denied the opportunity to avenge his NCAA finals loss from last season, but he’ll likely still be out for blood against Penn State. That, coupled with the fact that Rasheed did not seem to be back in prime wrestling shape in his return to the mat last Friday after injury, puts this bout into bonus-point territory for the Buckeyes. Rasheed seemed to use all of his energy up last week after getting that initial takedown on Michigan’s Jelani Embree, and gassing early isn’t going to fly against Hodge-contender Martin. The 2016 national champ has an opportunity to be a hero for his team Friday night, so he can be counted on to come out strong. Having missed a few matches and possibly still nursing an injury, it’ll be tough for Rasheed to keep up.
Prediction: Martin by major decision, 17-6
Cobler: Just for the heck of it, wouldn’t it be fun to see Nickal drop down a weight class just to get a rematch with Martin? The answers for that question are yes and yes. However, it won’t happen, of course. What is intriguing in this matchup is who will go for Penn State. Rasheed had a massive brace on his right leg against Michigan last week. It undoubtedly hampered his wrestling. Do Sanderson and Co. go with Francisco Bisono, or will Mason Manville bump up? To me, this one comes down to Martin and how much he wants to stick it to the Nittany Lions after what happened the NCAA championships in Cleveland.
Prediction: Martin by technical fall, 20-5
197 pounds: PSU’s No. 1 Bo Nickal (18-0) vs. No. 2 Kollin Moore (13-0)
Muthler: This might be a bold prediction against the No. 2 wrestler in the country at 197 pounds, but I’m picking Nickal by major decision. In college football, people talk about players having “Heisman moments,” and this is the wrestling equivalent of that for the Hodge Trophy frontrunner in Nickal. At this point, the dual will be on the line, and Nickal will have the chance to help put it away for his team and establish his dominance over the rest of his weight class at the same time. As a senior, Nickal is used to wrestling in hostile environments and is unlikely to be fazed by the crowd, which will be blowing the roof off of St. John Arena at this point. The most dominant wrestler in the NCAA right now, averaging 5.33 points per bout, Nickal also leads all other Hodge contenders in pins, and can check off that “heart” criteria as well with a bonus-point victory to set teammate Anthony Cassar up to bring home the win.
Prediction: Nickal by major decision, 17-8
Cobler: I’m sure Moore had this dual circled on his calendar. He squared off with Cassar, who was filling in for the 197-pound starter in Rasheed. Moore, who was No. 1, had the chance to lock up a win for his team against the unranked Cassar and snap the rivals’ dual winning streak. Instead, Cassar dominated Moore to a 6-3 victory and handed the Buckeye his first loss of the season. Nickal is even better than Cassar was last year. I don’t see how Moore keeps up with Nickal’s pace either. Muthler has a good point in that, should Nickal collect bonus points in this bout, it may just stamp his name on the Hodge Trophy and keep it with the Nittany Lions.
Prediction: Nickal by decision, 15-8
285 pounds: PSU’s No. 3 Anthony Cassar (17-1) or Nick Nevills (8-2) vs. No. 19 Chase Singletary (15-4)
Muthler: Last year, Cassar’s upset win over Moore proved key for the Nittany Lions in keeping their unbeaten streak alive, and this year, it appears Cassar’s result will again prove crucial in determining this dual. If the dual goes as I predicted so far, Cassar will need at least a major decision to keep the dual from being decided on criteria. Luckily for Penn State, its heavyweight has a bonus rate of 76.5 percent, and Cassar is always good for at least a few blast doubles. Cassar earned an impressive 19-8 major decision last weekend over promising Michigan freshman Mason Parris, who beat Singletary 6-3 the week prior. Cool under pressure, Cassar will have this dual in his hands to win, and should be able to do so with ease.
Prediction: Cassar by major decision, 20-8
Cobler: Cassar stated after Penn State’s win over Michigan a week ago that it didn’t matter if the dual came down to him or not, he was going to wrestle his match. The Nittany Lions had the dual in hand against the Wolverines, but this time it will all be on Cassar’s broad shoulders. So, will he really live by his words and wrestle his match against Singletary? I think he does. He hits so many of his signature blast doubles, that it be like the final blows in a heavyweight title fight, that sends the Buckeyes’ fans home unhappy.
Prediction: Cassar by major decision, 18-5
Muthler: If 19-18 sounds familiar, that’s because it should. That’s the exact score of last year’s contest between these two teams. It’s funny how with so many lineup changes — with weight changes and graduations — the end result is likely to end up being pretty similar. In any dual that comes down to bonus points, the Nittany Lions typically hold the edge. But the Buckeyes have some bonus machines of their own, and some Penn State injuries might allow them to pick up even more. In the end, it’ll come down to whether Penn State’s core four — Nolf, Joseph, Hall and Nickal — plus Cassar can put up big enough numbers and carry their team to victory. I know I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.
Prediction: Penn State 19, Ohio State 18
Cobler: One thing that remains the constant between last season’s dual and Friday’s, the fans will be in their seats the whole match as it will come down to the heavyweights again. The difference, Penn State is the favorite in the weight class compared to past seasons when Ohio State banked on Kyle Snyder to close the dual out. Sanderson was asked if the gameplan changes at all against the Buckeyes now that, “that heavyweight” (Snyder) isn’t there. “That heavyweight,” Sanderson said with a laugh. “They’re stronger in other areas, they lost a couple guys; we lost a couple guys. I’d say they feel pretty good about their chances, we feel pretty good about our chances. So it’s just a matter of who goes out there and gets it done.” It’ll be Sanderson’s squad getting it done for the 56th time in a row and the 34th straight Big Ten victory.
Prediction: Penn State 22, Ohio State 15