Sixteen thousand roaring fans packed the Bryce Jordan Center to the rafters for No. 1 Penn State wrestling’s 24-14 win over No. 9 Ohio State on Friday night, and they didn’t come just to watch the biggest test on the undefeated Nittany Lions’ schedule to date.
No, they came from all over the state — clogging up the roads so early before the match that head coach Cael Sanderson even struggled to get to the mats on time — to watch Penn State’s grapplers run out under a canopy of steel and smoke; to observe a specific kind of wrestling.
The “right” kind, to hear Sanderson describe it.
“I think that’s one of the great things,” he said. “I mean, yeah, Pennsylvania wrestling is huge at all levels, at the youth level, at the high school level and at the collegiate level. The fans know what they’re looking at, and they love good wrestling.
“And I think our guys are doing a good job of really wrestling impressively, so they’re really fun to watch. The people are coming because of the way these guys are wrestling. And they’re good kids. They’re good kids, they’re humble kids. Win or lose, they’re going to be the same. They want to win, they’re going to fight to win. You’re not going to see our guys laying on their bellies a lot. We want to make (Pennsylvania) proud.”
Sure, the crowd came for the pure-swagger-in-a-singlet of Jason Nolf, the No. 1-ranked 157-pounder who jogged out onto the spotlight-illuminated mat to blaring AC/DC, and put a 19-6 beating on Ohio State’s Jake Ryan to improve to 23-0 on the season.
But no one brought Sanderson’s description of why the fans support this Penn State team so vigorously to physical manifestation like the bouts of Geno Morelli (165) and Jordan Conaway (133).
Morelli battled heartily throughout his bout against the Buckeyes’ Bo Jordan. Down 3-1 with 30 seconds left in the third period after a takedown by Jordan, Morelli was determined not to finish on his back and escaped with 20 seconds remaining. He lost 3-2, but the crowd gave him a massive ovation because of the way he wrestled, not the outcome.
And Conaway thrilled the crowd with a four-point comeback, after an early takedown by Ohio State’s Johnni DiJulius. He even overcame a 1:30 riding time deficit and then some, to finish with 1:44 in riding time of his own — and he turned on the afterburners to win the bout 8-4.
“That was huge, because those four points were real early,” said Sanderson. “It looked like he was going to have a hard time getting off the bottom. DiJulius is obviously really tricky. ... But Jordan, he’s a fighter. And he’s going to keep wrestling the whole time.”
It’s wrestlers like Conaway that Penn State fans come to see — he’s a former walk-on who came to the university after the program he’d planned to wrestle for, Liberty, converted its team to a club program — wrestlers who seem to win by a healthy combination of skill and sheer force of will.
Like 174-pound and No. 1-ranked Bo Nickal, who, gassed by the time the third period rolled around, turned a 4-1 deficit into an 11-5 win over Ohio State’s Myles Martin, in front of a crowd that knew all too well how chippy things got between the two the last time they met. Nickal kept his poise late and finished the bout by putting Martin on his back, to the delight of those watching.
“(Our fans) know what they’re doing, and they’re out there supporting us the whole time,” said 184-pounder Matt McCutcheon. “It’s awesome, Rec Hall or here, they’re always right there with us for every match. They cheer for guys when they come back and win. … As long as you wrestle hard, they’re going to be right there behind you. It’s awesome to know they’re intelligent and supportive.”
As Conaway finished his rumble and gave the Nittany Lions their first lead of the night, the crowd, plenty warmed-up by that point, got to its feet and thousands of fists raised in the air.
“We always say we have the best fans in the country, but it’s a testament to what they do for us, coming out here and wrestling in an environment like that,” added McCutcheon, who won his bout over Kenny Courts 4-0. “You get chills. Smoke is coming up and everyone is cheering. … I mean, it’s exciting. I think our team looks forward to it every time we have a home meet.”
His team and Penn State fans, both.