This past season of Iowa wrestling had everything we could have asked for -- except, of course, a national championship. (Thanks, COVID-19.) But it featured Iowa's return to the top of the podium in college wrestling with a dominant campaign that included a perfect 13-0 record in dual meets, a record-setting performance at the 2019 Midlands Championships, and a runaway victory at the 2020 Big Ten Tournament. The highlight of that 13-0 dual meet season was Iowa's thrilling 19-17 comeback win over Penn State in a much-hyped #1 vs #2 showdown in January that managed to even exceed the considerable hype the dual had generated.
If Iowa head coach Tom Brands had had his way, though, we might have gotten that dual almost three months sooner than we actually got it -- and on an even bigger stage. In an interview with KCJJ, Brands said that he had tried to set up the Iowa-Penn State dual meet as Grapple on the Gridiron II at Kinnick Stadium in November.
Brands told KCJJ he and athletics director Gary Barta made plans for a sequel last season. He said he tried to contact Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson about bringing his preseason #1 Nittany Lions to Kinnick Stadium to face his second-ranked Hawkeyes, but Sanderson never returned his calls. “He hemmed and hawed and stalled me,” Brands told KCJJ, “so I just had to move on.”
The date planned for the event was November 16, which was the same day as Iowa's home football game with Minnesota. Ironically, Minnesota was also Iowa's football opponent the same day as the original Grapple on the Gridiron back in 2015 -- Iowa topped the Gophers 40-35 in an electrifying night game showdown that capped off one of the best Iowa sports days in recent history.
Hosting Grapple on the Gridiron II on that day would have necessitated moving the Iowa-Minnesota football game to an evening kickoff (it was a 3 PM Central kickoff on FOX), but that probably would have been feasible. Moving a November game to an evening kickoff requires sign-off from both of the schools involved, but that shouldn't have been an issue; Iowa would have done so to accommodate the wrestling event and I suspect Minnesota would have been fine with it, too, since a night game typically carries more prestige and attention -- and I suspect PJ Fleck would have been happy to draft off the attention and buzz brought by Grapple on the Gridiron II. (The game also would have needed a TV partner, but between FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, BTN, and FS1, I don't think it would have been hard to find someone willing to air Iowa-Minnesota in the evening that day.)
The Iowa-Penn State dual that we did get in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was an incredible spectacle in its own right, with one of the most electrifying atmospheres of any Iowa event in a very long time. The atmosphere for Iowa-Penn State in a Grapple on the Gridiron setting may not have been better -- but it certainly would have been even bigger and it definitely would have been memorable. The original Grapple on the Gridiron had a great atmosphere because of the novelty of the event, the long and intense history between Iowa and Oklahoma State, and the fact that it featured two of the best teams in college wrestling that year. This edition wouldn't have had as much novelty as the original, but the rivalry between Iowa and Penn State has probably become even more intense in recent years, especially with Iowa trying to unseat Penn State as the top program in the sport and reclaim their past glory. That #1 vs #2 showdown would have certainly generated a fiery atmosphere -- and been one hell of a way to kick off the 2019-20 wrestling season.
Would the dual itself have played out differently? Wrestlers typically aren't at their sharpest early in the season (even Spencer Lee only recorded a meager major decision in his first match of his buzzsaw of a campaign this past season), though you suspect that both Iowa and Penn State wrestlers would have trained a little harder to be ready for a massive showdown like this in mid-November. Injuries impacted rosters for both teams as the season went on (especially Penn State), so the squads that took the mat at the end of January would have looked a bit different if they had done so in mid-November instead. Let's break things down quickly:
125: In the actual dual, Spencer Lee ran through Brandon Meredith with a 16-1 technical fall victory. At the start of the year, Iowa native Brody Teske, not Meredith, was manning the 125 lb spot for the Nittany Lions, though his results weren't much different. As noted, Lee got his season off to a (by his absurdly high standards) sluggish start with a 16-5 major decision win over Fabian Gutierrez (an eventual national qualifier for Chattanooga). I suspect he would have been dialed in for a high-profile early season showdown with Penn State, though.
Lee via TF; IOWA 5-0
133: Austin DeSanto got the better of Roman Bravo-Young in their two meetings in 2019, while Bravo-Young got the better of DeSanto in both of their encounters in 2020. In the actual dual, Bravo-Young prevailed via injury default when DeSanto tweaked his knee and couldn't continue; that result dumped Iowa in an early hole that they spent the rest of the dual trying to escape. The actual result here seems like a coin-flip, but we'll give credence to the most recent results and give RBY the slightest of edges.
RBY via DEC; IOWA 5-3
141: Max Murin entered the season nursing a shoulder injury and wrestled sparingly early on; Austin DeSanto actually wrestled up a weight (at 141 lbs) in Iowa's first dual of the season, while Carter Happel wrestled at 141 in Iowa's second dual of the year. I doubt Iowa would have been in a hurry to rush Murin back against an opponent as good as Nick Lee. As intriguing as a DeSanto-Lee match might have been (talk about "all action"), I don't think Iowa would have wanted to weaken its lineup at two weights to do that (DeSanto would have been, at best, a moderate underdog against Lee at 141, while Paul Glynn, DeSanto's replacement at 133, would have been a significant underdog to Bravo-Young), so Happel likely gets the nod here. Lee smashed Happel in the actual dual and I don't see much reason to think otherwise here.
Lee via TF; PENN STATE 8-5
149: Penn State used Luke Gardner and Jarod Verkleeren at 149 lbs in their early season duals, but I suspect they would have wanted to go with their strongest option for this dual, which would have been Verkleeren. Lugo improved steadily throughout the course of the season and was clearly wrestling his best in March -- but he wasn't bad in November, either, and I think the result here would have been the same as it was in the actual dual: a decision win for Lugo.
Lugo via DEC; TIE 8-8
157: Bo Pipher was Penn State's guy at 157 at the start of the year and also for the Iowa dual, while Kaleb Young was Iowa's guy at 157 all year long. Young won 6-1 at the actual dual and there's not much reason to think we'd see a different result here.
Young via DEC; IOWA 11-8
165: And now we hit the money part of this dual. While Alex Marinelli won three of the four matches he wrestled against Vincenzo Joseph, they were always tight affairs -- even when the scores didn't necessarily reflect that reality. The first three bouts were decided by big moves; Marinelli finished the big moves in the first two encounters, while Joseph got the better of him in the third meeting. Their final match, at the 2020 Big Ten Tournament, was decided by the only takedown of the match, which Marinelli managed to get with seconds remaining. So even though Marinelli won three of four matches against Joseph, he doesn't feel like any sort of overwhelming favorite here. Joseph got the better of him in the actual dual this past season and the nature of their matches suggested that it was likely that he would do so at some point; this result is a coin-clip that could go either way, but I'll take Cenzo this time.
Joseph via DEC; TIE 11-11
174: In the actual dual, Kemerer's upset win over Mark Hall was the emotional pinnacle of the dual, as well as the competitive turning point; Iowa loses the dual if Kemerer doesn't get the victory. In the actual dual Penn State led 14-10 entering this match and Hall had admitted that he was amped up to try and go for the kill early, which was evidenced by his attempt to go for a big throw and a headlock takeover in the first minute of the match. Kemerer rolled through that danger and quickly scored himself, setting the tone for the match. Would Hall have been cagier with the dual tied and knowing that PSU needed a win from him to have any chance at winning this dual? Or would he still have been overly amped up by the spectacle of Grapple on the Gridiron and the surely charged atmosphere that would have been present in Kinnick for this match? For that matter, how would Kemerer have responded to the situation? Hall beat Kemerer in the rematch this season when he wrestled a more cautious match -- but he also benefited from a somewhat unusual neutral danger call in that win as well. I think we would have had a much more conservative match from both Hall and Kemerer here than the electrifying pedal-to-the-metal encounter we got in the actual dual. As for the result? It's another coin-flip -- but I think this one goes Iowa's way.
Kemerer via DEC; IOWA 14-11
184: No match in this dual would have been more different than this one if the dual had taken place in November rather than late January. In the actual dual this match was a showdown of true freshmen, with Abe Assad and Aaron Brooks having used strong performances earlier in the year to convince their coaches to tear off their redshirts and throw them into the fire in 2019-20. But if this match had been the first of the season I think it's very unlikely that either Tom Brands or Cael Sanderson would have sent out a true freshman here. Assad didn't crack Iowa's lineup until a good showing at Midlands and made his debut in an Iowa singlet in early January. Sanderson made the call with Brooks earlier than that -- he entered the PSU lineup for their early December dual with Lehigh -- but I still have my doubts that he would have gone here. In reality, Penn State used Creighton Edsell at 184 in their first dual of the year and forfeited the weight at their second dual. Meanwhile, Iowa used Nelson Brands at 184 in their opening dual and Cash Wilcke in the second dual. I suspect Iowa would have used either Brands or Wilcke at 184 in this scenario -- and likely Wilcke, given that he would have been a safer option in such a high profile dual. I doubt Penn State would have forfeited this weight, but I don't think Edsell would have been able to get by Wilcke.
Wilcke via DEC; IOWA 17-11
197: In the actual dual, Warner edged Shakur Rasheed by a 4-2 decision. But Rasheed didn't enter the Penn State lineup until early January because he was recovering from injuries in the early part of the season. Penn State's starter at 197 to begin the season was high profile Kent State transfer Kyle Conel, who finished 3rd at the NCAA Tournament a few seasons ago. Conel's season ended after an injury a few weeks into the season, but he was struggling even before injury officially ended things; he went just 3-3 in competition, which included some uninspiring wins and shaky losses... and none of those matches were against a Top 5 talent like Warner. I like Warner to get the decision win here.
Warner via DEC; IOWA 20-11
285: Injury taketh for Penn State in this scenario, but it also giveth. One of the most consequential injuries of the season was defending NCAA champion Anthony Cassar sustaining a season-ending injury at U.S. Senior Nationals in December. A Penn State lineup with Cassar would have been even more formidable in duals and tournaments -- and might have been enough to swing things in Penn State's favor. In the actual dual, Tony Cassioppi completed Iowa's comeback and secured a Hawkeye victory in the dual with a win over Seth Nevills in the final match of the night. In this scenario, though, I don't think Cassioppi would have been the hero against Cassar. Fortunately, if the rest of the dual went as I projected it, Cassioppi wouldn't have needed to be the hero in this match, either.
Cassar via DEC; IOWA 20-14
Iowa's roster didn't change much between November and late January, but Penn State's did, with different starters at four weights (125, 184, 197, and 285). Those changes ended up making Penn State much stronger at 184 and a little bit stronger at 197 -- and much weaker at 285. (It didn't change anything at 125.) I think those changes, coupled with the lack of a flukish injury default loss, would have allowed Iowa to record a more comfortable win in this scenario -- though if Penn State manages to win all three big toss-up matches (133, 165, 174) and/or pulls an unexpected upset or two (or gets some unexpected bonus points) they would have had an excellent shot at a win here. Odds are it would have been a pretty thrilling dual.
Alas, we'll never know what might have happened since Brands & Co. weren't able to get the dual scheduled. It does feel like it would have been the right moment to make Grapple on the Gridiron II happen, though. The success of Grapple on the Gridiron depends on a unique alchemy of factors: you need a great Iowa team, you need a great (or at least really good) opponent who can present a highly credible challenge to that Iowa team, and you (obviously) need a home dual for Iowa. That perfect arrangement falls into place very rarely.
For instance, in this upcoming season, Iowa should again have a killer roster since they're returning everyone from this past season except Pat Lugo and they're adding a high profile grad transfer in Jaydin Eierman. But the schedule doesn't work in their favor; they should wrestle Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Ohio State in 2020-21 -- but all of those duals will be on the road, not in Iowa City. The most high profile opponents visiting Iowa City this season will probably be Iowa State and Michigan and while the Wolverines are expected to have a very good team this year, they probably won't have the buzz around them that you'd need to sell another Grapple on the Gridiron event. (And, of course, even if Iowa did have a plausible opponent for a potential Grapple on the Gridiron event visiting this season, the notion of hosting 40,000 fans for a dual meet in November might be a pipe dream given COVID-19 concerns.)
Iowa's starting lineup will look very different after 2020-21 and while we hope it will be more of a reload than a full-fledged rebuild, no Grapple on the Gridiron-type event is getting scheduled until it's clear Iowa has a national title-caliber squad. We'll have to wait and see how the talents lining up to replace the likes of Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto, Kaleb Young, Alex Marinelli, and Michael Kemerer after this season will fare. Looking at that list of names highlights another reason why the timing was so perfect for a Grapple on the Gridiron sequel this past season and why it might be a while until we see it again: this was an extremely likable -- and very popular -- Iowa team. Spencer Lee is one of the best -- and best-liked -- Iowa wrestlers in the history of the program. DeSanto, Marinelli, and Kemerer are huge fan favorites as well. Having big personalities and big stars like that makes it easier to sell an event like Grapple on the Gridiron, especially when the novelty factor is gone.
The stars aligned for the first Grapple on the Gridiron in 2015 and made it a huge success and one of the most memorable Iowa sporting events of the last decade. It really feels like the stars could have aligned again for a Grapple on the Gridiron sequel in 2019, but unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. That's a bummer, but we still got a fantastic Iowa season overall and an incredibly memorable and exciting Iowa-Penn State dual anyway, so it's not like things worked out poorly in the end.