Legendary coach and wrestler Dan Gable taking in the Iowa-Pen State dual meet (Photo/Bob Mayeri)
The greatest monument to Dan Gable's success as a coach is not his national championships, it isn't the individual championships, and it isn't the Olympic gold medals earned by his wrestlers. The most impressive manifestation of Gable's imposing legacy is the hoard of black clad Hawkeye fans who pour in from the frigid Iowa night to fill Carver Hawkeye Arena. These fans are passionate, dedicated, and can, in large doses, get a tiny bit annoying. They also are one of the most important populations of people in college wrestling. Imagine the NCAA champions if there were no Iowa fans, the arena would be twenty-five percent empty, at least. Love them or hate them, Iowa wrestling fans add an incredible amount to the sport, and sometimes, as we saw on Friday night, their energy and encouragement can help spur the Iowa wrestlers on to victory.
These fans come to Iowa wrestling matches to celebrate the heroic unbreakable spirit of their beloved Hawkeye wrestlers. As was demonstrated in Iowa's 22-16 victory over two-time defending national champion Penn State on Friday night, that spirit is still alive and well, even if the method of victory is somewhat different. Since I started watching college wrestling in the mid-90s, and through Tom Brands' initial seasons, the hallmark of Iowa wrestling was the clutch third-period shot. In these days, it seemed that the great Hawkeye wrestlers would dispatch their toughest opponents in the third period with an inevitable leg attack followed by a pristine and forceful finish, no roll-through counters or other shenanigans, just another Iowa wrestler imposing his will on an opponent. The Iowa style seems to be based largely around the notion of the no nonsense, no frills, approach to wrestling where victory is achieved by getting in on the legs, driving across the hips hard, and putting the other guy on his butt. That wasn't the case on Friday night.
On Friday, the Iowa Hawkeyes' wins in key matches came not through unstoppable aggressiveness, but through prowess in scrambling. The winning takedowns for Derek St. John at 157 and Mike Evans at 174 came off of scrambly, some might even say funky, counter wrestling, and Matt McDonough at 125 had to fend off a winning take down bid from Nico Megaludis with some deft scrambling of his own. To some purists this might signal the beginning of the end for the greatness of Iowa wrestling, but I disagree. Long-term success is almost always predicated on the ability to adapt, and this is what we are seeing with the current version of the Hawkeye wrestling team. Iowa is wrestling the way they need to succeed. After all, they are a team coached not by simplistic brutes, but by savvy wrestling minds, minds which have seen their team improve by leaps and bounds this year and have positioned themselves to make a very legitimate run at a national title.
Penn State has questions to answer
Part of me really wants to see Penn State win it all this year and grow into a dynasty that dominates much the way Iowa did. I want this because wrestling needs more than one fan base like Iowa's. It would be nice to see Penn State's fans become just as numerous, loud, and annoying as Iowa fans. The size and intensity of fan bases are a vital component in the health of our sport.
That being said, I believe that Penn State is in for its toughest fight for the national championship in the last three years. I see a number of obstacles that may hinder their ability to produce at nationals like they were able in 2012. At 149, Andrew Alton is almost certainly not going to score like Frank Molinaro. Andrew's brother Dylan, at 157, is going to be hard-pressed to replicate his third-place showing from last year. At 165, David Taylor, isn't even favored to get first anymore, which is crazy. Sophomore 174-pounder, Matt Brown looks like an All-American, but NCAAs are often cruel to first-time participants. Ed Ruth, up a weight at 184, should win it all but probably won't earn quite as many bonus points, the same problem is present at 197 where I don't see Quentin Wright producing quite as many team points as he did in the past two years. Finally, Penn State may be getting better than expected production out of its heavyweights, but they will be heading straight on into one of the toughest heavyweight classes in years.
When the dust clears, it will probably be Penn State hoisting a national championship trophy above their heads. I just anticipate a much more interesting race this March.
Meanwhile, Penn state was apparently really, really frustrated about the Iowa loss because they blanked a very good Illinois team 37-0 a couple days later. This is scary, but largely due to the fact the Penn State matches up perfectly with the Illini.
I'll admit that I also was surprised by the results of Illinois' loss to Ohio State, particularly the role played by Kenny Courts. Courts, a blue chip redshirt freshman at 184, has had an up-and-down season, so I was shocked when Ohio State coach Tom Ryan bumped him to 197 to wrestle Mario Gonzalez, the defending Big Ten champion. Gonzalez is a big 197 pounder who has had success wrestling at heavyweight. Courts didn't just hold his own against Gonzalez, he won 13-9. Perhaps Courts is better suited to 197 and a permanent move is in order.
Oklahoma State in the driver's seat
I would suppose that Penn State's loss will leave Oklahoma State to rise to the top in the NWCA dual meet strength based rankings. John Smith's Cowboys had a tough task this week against Missouri, who seems to have a ranked wrestler at almost every weight. The Cowboys were able to claim an impressive victory here 21-13. Unfortunately, this match did not feature a rematch at heavyweight between top-ranked Mizzou Tiger Dom Bradley and third-ranked Alan Gelogaev. These wrestlers won't be meeting in their conference tournament, and Dom's win against Gelogaev earlier this year at the Southern Scuffle puts him ahead for seeding purposes come March.
This dual did provide an unforeseen major decision loss for Oklahoma State's No. 1-ranked Chris Perry at the hands of Missouri's Todd Porter. I heard some people murmuring about how this shows that 174 will be a wide open weight come nationals, but I disagree. This is Perry's first loss since last year's national semifinals, and until further event prove otherwise, I'm going to view this match as an anomaly and still consider Chris to be a heavy favorite to win a national title.
What to look forward to this week
Penn State vs. Ohio State: The Buckeyes provide an interesting matchup against PSU. The Buckeyes should earn bonus points at 133 and 141, and they have envisionable wins at 174 and 285. This means that Ohio State is only one weird match result away from a possible upset.
Individual match I want to see: James Green vs. Derek St. John. When Iowa and Nebraska lock horns this week I look forward to this clash of elite 157-pounders, it will be fun to see if the lengthy and crafty St. John can thwart the power and speed of Green.