It's Iowa-Penn State time (8 PM CT, BTN) on the mat, once again. It will (almost certainly) decide the Big Ten regular season title, once again. It's #1 vs #2, once again. It's the biggest dual meet of the year, once again.
Give or take a few Penn State-Ohio State duals in recent years, Iowa-Penn State has been the gold standard for college wrestling dual meets for over a decade -- ever since Cael Sanderson decamped to State College and turned Penn State into the sport's newest dynasty. Iowa-Penn State has drawn the biggest hype and the biggest crowds -- and it's produced some of the biggest moments, too. This is the first Iowa-Penn State dual meet since their electrifying showdown two years ago -- which was also in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa edged Penn State 19-17 in that contest, thanks in no small part of a thrilling come-from-behind win by Michael Kemerer over Mark Hall that produced some of the loudest moments in CHA history.
Last year's Iowa-PSU dual was canceled due to COVID issues within the Iowa program. That dual would have been in Happy Valley, but it would have been a shell of what it usually is, given the Big Ten's no fans policy for sporting events last winter. Iowa went on to edge Penn State at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments in 2021, repeating as outright Big Ten champions and regaining their first NCAA championship since 2010 after COVID canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
2021-22 set up as more of the same. Iowa and Penn State entered the season as the top two contenders for Big Ten and NCAA glory. Iowa was positioned as the favorite, given that they were the returning champions and bringing back everyone from that championship lineup. But circumstances have changed now and both lineups look different. The most notable difference is the season-ending injury to Spencer Lee, which has taken a huge chunk out of Iowa's lineup. But Penn State has not just reloaded this season, they've upgraded at several weights; they added a former NCAA finalist (Max Dean) as a transfer at 197 lbs, then added a former All-American (Drew Hildebrandt) as a transfer at 125. They even managed to get Brady Berge, talented but injury-riddled during his career at Penn State, to come out of retirement (and a grad assistant job at South Dakota State) to give it one last go on the mat, boosting their options at 165 lbs. All of that (plus some key additions at Michigan, another top contender this year) has pushed Iowa out of the favorite seat for this year's NCAA championship. Instead Penn State once again looks like the team to beat as they try to win their ninth team championship since 2011.
But this dual is still absolutely loaded. If both teams field their best lineups, 19 of the 20 wrestlers on the mat should be ranked inside the Top 20 at their respective weights. We should see four #1-ranked wrestlers (and could have seen six, if Spencer hadn't shut things down for the season and if Marinelli had managed to win last week). We should see two 1 vs 2 showdowns (141 and 174) and another 1 vs 3 showdown (133), plus two other Top 5 clashes (2 vs 4 at 197 and 3 vs 5 at 285). The talent level in this dual is outstanding and a number of these matches figure to be previews of future Big Ten and NCAA semifinal and final matches.
#11 Drake Ayala (FR, 13-4)
Jesse Ybarra (RS FR, 2-2)
|vs||#7 Drew Hildebrandt (SR, 4-1)|
#3 Austin DeSanto (SR, 12-0)
Cullan Schriever (FR, 15-5)
|vs||#1 Roman Bravo-Young (JR, 10-0)|
|141||#2 Jaydin Eierman (SR, 12-0)||vs||#1 Nick Lee (SR, 10-0)|
|149||#10 Max Murin (SR, 6-2)||vs||#19 Beau Bartlett (SO, 10-3)|
|157||#12 Kaleb Young (SR, 10-5)||vs||
Terrell Barraclough (SO, 6-6)
Tony Negron (JR, 1-5)
|165||#5 Alex Marinelli (SR, 14-1)||vs||
#11 Brady Berge (SR, 3-0)
Creighton Edsell (JR, 7-3)
|174||#2 Michael Kemerer (SR, 5-0)||vs||#1 Carter Starocci (SO, 13-0)|
|184||#17 Abe Assad (SO, 9-3)||vs||#1 Aaron Brooks (JR, 11-0)|
|197||#4 Jacob Warner (SR, 11-1)||vs||#2 Max Dean (JR, 12-1)|
|285||#5 Tony Cassioppi (JR, 10-2)||vs||#3 Greg Kerkvliet (SO, 11-0)|
In a weird twist, Penn State has the edge at the lighter weights in this dual, while Iowa looks to have an advantage at the middle weights. For pretty much the entire Tom Brands Era at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have had a dynamite 1-2 punch at 125-133, allowing them to start off most duals with not just two wins, but two wins and bonus points. Ayala and DeSanto is hardly a bad 1-2 punch, but it pales in comparison to Lee-DeSanto -- and Penn State has finally found their own very strong options at the lightest weights. Bravo-Young has been a menace at 133 for a few years now, of course, but Hildebrandt's arrival has helped fill a hole in Penn State's lineup at 125 that's persisted since the days of Nico Megaludis, more or less.
Meanwhile, Penn State terrorized Iowa for years in the middle weights with guys like David Taylor, Zain Retherford, and Jason Nolf at 149 and 157; those guys are long gone now, though, and replacing some all-time greats has proven tricky at those weights. Iowa should have an advantage at 149, 157, and 165 in this dual and if they have any hopes of winning this dual meet, they have to turn that on-paper advantage into on-the-mat wins.
Assuming the dual starts at 125, it's entirely possible that Iowa and Penn State split the first six matches, with Penn State winning the first three bouts and Iowa responding with wins at 149, 157, and 165. Barring any bonus points, that would leave things knotted up heading into the final four weights. Penn State has a clear advantage at one of those weights (184), but the other three are essentially toss-ups. Kemerer and Starocci split two bouts last season, and while Warner and Dean have never wrestled (Dean was at 184 prior to this season), they have similar credentials (and similar styles). It could all come down to 285 and the last match of the evening. Cassioppi knocked off Kerkvliet 9-0 at the Big Ten Tournament last season, but Kerkvliet is a much improved (and much healthier) wrestler now than he was then, so he'll pose a stiff test for Tony Pins.
To win this dual, Iowa will probably need a little Carver chaos. They need a raucous crowd to help energize the Iowa wrestlers and influence the officials. And they're going to need to find a few wins that would be on-paper upsets along the way, something like Ayala over Hildebrandt, or DeSanto over Bravo-Young or Kemerer over Starocci. Do that and this can be another night that people remember fondly for years to come.
A few weight-by-weight thoughts:
- Ayala has two wins over Top 10 opponents already this season, but he stumbled last week against the lower-ranked Malik Heinselman. He struggled in that match because he gave up an early score and found himself chasing the match. That's been a theme in his losses this season, so getting the first takedown against Hildebrandt could be critical here. If this is the opening match of the dual, an Ayala win here would go a long way in getting the crowd revved up and boosting Iowa's upset potential.
- DeSanto won the first two meetings with RBY (back in 2019), but RBY has won the last three, including a pair of wins in 2020 and one in their only meeting last year (at the Big Ten Tournament). Bravo-Young has elite defense and he's developed a highly effective strategy to stymie DeSanto's favored attacks; time to see if Austin has learned any new tricks.
- Eierman-Lee is another match with a lot of history; Eierman has won two of their three past meetings, including a 6-5 victory in the Big Ten Tournament final last year, but Lee won the most recent (and biggest) match, a 4-2 win in sudden victory in the NCAA Tournament final last season. That should give Lee plenty of confidence heading into this bout. Eierman hasn't looked at his best all season, struggling with plenty of lesser-ranked (or unranked) opponents, which doesn't bode well for him here. But every match is a new opportunity and there's no better time for him to shake off the doldrums and produce his best wrestling of the season. Bold prediction: the team that wins this match will win the dual meet. If Ayala and DeSanto fall in their matches, an Eierman loss could put Iowa in a 9-0 hole. That's not insurmountable, but it could really cripple the crowd's enthusiasm and without a hot CHA crowd, I don't see an Iowa win in this dual meet.
- As noted, Iowa absolutely has to hold serve at 149-157-165 to have a shot at winning this dual. If they lose any of those three matches, they'll need to grab multiple upsets at other weights, which will be challenging. Murin and Bartlett both wrestle a lot of close matches -- 8 of Bartlett's 13 matches have been decided by two points or fewer (he's 6-2 in those matches, including 3-0 in sudden victory), while 5 of Murin's 8 matches this year have been decided by two points or fewer (he's 3-2 in those bouts). This match figures to be close and probably decided by a single move in the third period; that's a risky gambit, but one that both guys have done successfully often this year. Whichever guy succeeds at it here will probably win the match.
- 157 is the only match of the entire dual where we won't see two ranked wrestlers (assuming both teams wrestle their best options at all other weights), as Penn State simply doesn't have a great option at 157 this year. Kaleb Young has to, has to, has to, has to win this match. Bonus points would be very nice, but that may be hoping for too much.
- Alex Marinelli suffered an upset defeat last week against Ohio State's Carson Kharchla, but he doesn't have any time to rest on his laurels; he needs to get back on the horse and get a win here. Brady Berge will be a very tricky opponent, though, and Marinelli will need to be at his best to get a win here. Marinelli has had some magical moments in Iowa-Penn State duals in the past; let's hope he's got another one in him here.
- Speaking of magical moments, few Iowa-Penn State matches over the years can hold a candle to the thrill-a-minute instant classic between Michael Kemerer and Mark Hall in this dual in 2020. And just like that year, Iowa will probably once again need some heroics from Kemerer in his match if they're going to squeeze out a dual meet triumph. He and Starocci split two matches a year ago, with Kemerer handling him 7-3 in the Big Ten Tournament final before losing a 3-1 sudden victory heartbreaker in the NCAA Tournament final. Despite wrestling with a bulky shoulder brace since entering the Iowa lineup a few weeks ago, Kemerer has looked pretty excellent, using his guile and years of experience to methodically break opponents down and convert scoring opportunities into points. This may not be his most important match with Starocci this season, but a win here would feel awfully good.
- Aaron Brooks and Abe Assad met as callow true freshmen back in 2020, with Brooks prevailing 7-3 in that bout. Since then Brooks has won back-to-back Big Ten titles and an NCAA title last year. Assad has improved from their first meeting two years ago, but Brooks has leveled up into one of the best wrestlers in the sport over the past two seasons -- a win here for Assad would be a pretty monumental upset.
- Dean, a transfer from Cornell, spent his entire career at 184 before this season, but he's acclimated well to his new surroundings at 197, going 12-1, with his only loss coming after Michigan State's Cameron Caffey last weekend. He and Warner have never met, both can be... let's go with "methodical" and "patient" to describe their styles. I expect this to be a low-scoring match and one or two moves to decide it. Hopefully Warner comes out on top in those scrambles.
- Entering the season, the established pecking order at heavyweight in the Big Ten seemed to be Gable Steveson, then Mason Parris, then Cassioppi, then Kerkvliet. Steveson is still (far and away) the top of the heap at 285 (in the Big Ten and nationally) but things have gotten unsettled since then, mainly due to Kerkvliet knocking off Parris at the PSU-Michigan dual last week. He showed promise last season, but injuries slowed him down at times. He's fully healthy this year and staking a strong case to be the best non-Gable heavyweight in the Big Ten. That's a title that Cassioppi would also like to claim but he'll need a win here to make his case. This match could not only decide this dual meet, but also who has the misfortune of facing Steveson in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals in six weeks.
My personal prediction for this dual is something like 18-12 Penn State, but as is always the case when I make picks like that, I hope to be wrong. Iowa's certainly capable of winning this dual meet, but doing so will require them to wrestle at their very best, which we've seen from them in precious few duals this season. Let's hope they were saving their best for the biggest stage of the season so far.