The Big Ten is one of the most difficult conferences to compete in.
Just ask Penn State coach Cael Sanderson.
“The Big Ten is very solid this year,” he said.
And being the No. 1-ranked team in the country makes it that much harder.
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The Nittany Lions have thrived in all of their matches this year both non-conference and Big Ten.
Penn State is undefeated. However, what’s most impressive is the way they are winning those matches.
“I think that shows how hard we are working and the passion for the sport,” Nittany Lion redshirt freshman Jason Nolf said. “Everybody cares about it more than anybody I’ve ever been around before.”
The Nittany Lions haven’t really been tested since their match with then No. 7 Virginia Tech in the second match of the season. It was the closest a team has come all year to beating them. The 15 points scored by the Hokies is the most points that have been scored against Penn State all year, along with Illinois — last weekend.
In that match, the Nittany Lions saw Nico Megaludis, Jimmy Gulibon and Shakur Rasheed all lose. Gulibon’s loss was the most surprising as he was ranked No. 2 in the country at the time. Also, Rasheed was seeing his first real collegiate action as his first match of the year was cut short due to his opponent getting injured. He came out dominating the match but was unable to hold his weight and gassed out. Rasheed ended up losing in sudden victory.
Since that time, there have only been three other teams to score double-digit points against the Nittany Lions — Stanford (12, Nov. 22), Nebraska (10, Jan. 15) and Illinois (15, Jan. 23). Meanwhile, the 21 points Penn State scored in that win over Virginia Tech is the lowest all year.
“Our guys are wrestling hard,” Sanderson said. “Some guys harder than others. They are who they are at this point. They are ready to have great tournaments. It’s just making sure they have that enthusiasm and fire going into nationals and the Big Tens.
“I don’t think that’s really a concern for us. These guys love wrestling and love to compete and consistency shows that. We are happy where we are at.”
Before Penn State gets to those tournaments, it has a month full of ranked opponents.
It all begins Sunday with No. 8 Michigan in front of a standing-room-only crowd and it is set to be a “white out” inside Rec Hall. The Wolverines (10-1, 5-0 Big Ten) come in riding a seven-match winning streak with four of their past five wins coming over ranked teams.
Michigan is led by heavyweight Adam Coon. The junior finished second in the NCAA tournament last year losing to North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, 7-6. Coon is 11-0 on the year with six of those wins coming with bonus points — two pins, three technical falls and a major decision.
“They have a very good dual meet team,” Sanderson said of the opponent. “Their (1)25 pounder is a returning All-American and I believe their (1)33 pounder is an All-American. Their (1)41 pounder is a qualifier and a tough kind. (1)49, (Alec) Pantaleo, was a round away from being an All-American and is top five kid now.
“You got Coon at the top in the finals last year. (1)97 is a top six guy and (1)84 was a Big Ten champ last year. It’s a very good team and they beat up on Ohio State a couple weeks ago but every match matters for us.”
After the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions host defending national champion and No. 9-ranked Ohio State inside the Bryce Jordan Center, which is sold out.
They then travel to Bethlehem to face off with No. 6 Lehigh on Feb. 12 before returning back to host Michigan State the next day.
“We got some big matches coming up here,” Sanderson said. “We are winding down but we got a lot of tough matches coming up.”
The regular season comes to an end with the Dual Championship Series, which Penn State will host. As it stands right now, if the Nittany Lions remain No. 1 they will host the top ranked non-Big Ten school on Feb. 21.
The school they could host — once again as of right now — would be North Carolina State. It could change if the Wolfpack loses and that would mean a possible match with Oklahoma State, which is considered to be a favorite to keep the Nittany Lions off the top of the team podium at the NCAA tournament.
“You have to wake up every day and make a decision of how you’re going to compete,” Sanderson said, “regardless of how you feel. When your tested, you are just tested to see if you want to be a national champion or do you want to be the Big Ten champions? Every time you get challenged, you get tougher because you have to make that decision. You get to make that decision.
“I think you see with our guys they enjoy what they are doing. Steel sharpens steel and we’ve talked about that before with the Big Ten conference. It’s a matter of controlling your emotions.”
No. 8 Michigan (10-1, 5-0 Big Ten) at No. 1 Penn State (11-0, 6-0 Big Ten)
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rec Hall
Radio: WRSC 1390
125: No. 4 Nico Megaludis (20-1)
Conor Youtsey (6-8)
133: No. 5 Jordan Conaway (17-3)
No. 17 Rossi Bruno(9-6)
141: No. 14 Jimmy Gulibon (9-4)
OR Kade Moss (15-6)
George Fisher (7-7)
OR Zac Hall (4-2)
149: No. 1 Zain Retherford (20-0)
No. 6 Alec Pantaleo (16-3)
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (21-0)
No. 9 Brian Murphy (4-2)
OR Cody VanderHagen (6-6)
165: No. 17 Shakur Rasheed (13-6)
OR Geno Morelli (16-5)
Garrett Sutton (8-7)
174: No. 1 Bo Nickal (21-1)
No. 13 Davonte Mahomes (10-7)
184: Brian Brill (9-2)
OR Devon Van Cura (7-4)
No. 8 Domenic Abounader (15-1)
197: No. 1 Morgan McIntosh (19-0)
No. 6 Max Huntley (15-2)
HWT: Jan Johnson (1-6)
OR Wes Phipps (0-2)
No. 4 Adam Coon (11-0)