Penn State Wrestling

Travis Johnson | Brutal stretch run awaits Penn State wrestling team

The first portion of the Penn State wrestling team’s dual-meet schedule has been a cakewalk.

The second half? It’s more like a buzzsaw.

Following Sunday’s home dual against the No. 13 Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3, 3-2 Big Ten) the No. 1 Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) will finish their regular season with five of six duals on the road. Of those five trips, Penn State will travel to hostile gyms to face No. 4 Iowa, No. 6 Illinois, No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 5 Ohio State.

All of those teams boast highly-ranked wrestlers who figure to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament and each one will be gunning to knock the top-ranked Nittany Lions off their perch atop the pack.

Penn State wrestlers and coaches wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m real excited to see how they respond,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “I’m excited to see the approach that they take and whether they choose to go in and wrestle hard and do what they do and have fun like they always do or not. Because that’s ultimately what it comes down to as we get into the national championship and the Big Ten championship.”

And perhaps, finally Penn State will actually be tested.

I’ve been asked if this Penn State squad is better than the last two incarnations — teams that won Big Ten and National Championships handily over the last two seasons. My answer for now is a resounding, “Yes!”

The way I figure it, Penn State has played the role of Eagle convincingly while its seven dual-meet opponents have unwittingly been cast as Mice. The Nittany Lions haven’t toyed with their prey as an eagle might. They’ve just dominated them.

At this point last season, Penn State was whipping its opponents by an average score of 33-8. This season that average score has jumped to 40-3. Of course, last season Penn State suffered a 23-14 loss early to a vaunted Minnesota squad, but consider — the Nittany Lions have been without the Alton twins over their last three dual meets this season.

You can bet the team scores of 41-0, 36-6 and 35-3 — Penn State’s last three wins — would’ve been higher had Andrew Alton (who leads the team with 10 falls) and Dylan Alton who is tied for second with eight had been in the lineup.

Their replacements, James English and James Vollrath, although they performed spectacularly at the Southern Scuffle, didn’t post any bonus points in their six dual-meet bouts over the last three duals.

Really, the answer to the “Is Penn State better than last year?” question will be answered over the coming weeks.

“We really haven’t had a road test since I’ve been in school and this year we’re definitely going to be tested,” Penn State’s David Taylor said. “Going to Iowa, wrestling a really strong Illinois team, going to Ohio State and wrestling a Pitt team (in Pittsburgh). Those are four straight duals in a row. It’s going to be challenging.”

Consider the Hawkeyes, Illini, Buckeyes and Panthers will likely combine to send 29 highy-ranked, highly-skilled grapples onto the mats against their Penn State counterparts. Nine of them are ranked in the Top 5 at their respective weights while six others have made their ways into the Top 10.

In the coming weeks you’ll hear names like Matt McDonough (125, Iowa), Jesse Delgado (125, Illinois), Tony Ramos (133, Iowa), Logan and Hunter Stieber (133 and 141, Ohio State) and Matt Wilps (197, Pittsburgh). Those opponents, and so many more will stand in the Nittany Lions’ way.

Finally, the oft-described rugged, brutal final month is finally here. And it is finally, legitimately rugged and brutal.

Penn State wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m really looking forward to wrestling in (Carver-Hawkeye Arena). I’ve never done that before,” Taylor said. “It’s the second-best place in the country behind Rec Hall. I’m also really looking forward to going home to Ohio and wrestling in front of my home crowd. I’m really looking forward to the next month and a half.”