The 2021 141 lb NCAA final between Nick Lee and Jaydin Eierman (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Last weekend No. 1 Penn State took care of business in a big way against then-No. 3 Michigan. What was considered a close dual on paper turned into a 29 to 6 blowout. On Friday, those same Nittany Lions return to the Midwest to face off against No. 2 Iowa. The Hawkeyes entered the season as the top dual team, but they have since lost three-time champion Spencer Lee to injury. While they enter this match as underdogs, they will have their noted home arena advantage. The following is a weight-by-weight preview of the dual.
125: No. 11 Drake Ayala (Iowa) vs. No. 7 Drew Hildebrandt (Penn State)
With Spencer Lee pulling out of the season due to injury, the Hawkeyes made the decision to pull the redshirt off Ayala. The Iowa native has gone 13-4 on the season and 3-2 in Big Ten dual matches. Ayala started the Big Ten dual season with his third loss against No. 9 Patrick McKee (Minnesota). However, he bounced back with three-straight victories over No. 16 Devin Schroder (Purdue), No. 12 Michael DeAugustino (Northwestern) and No. 26 Justin Cardani (Illinois). The true freshman came back down to earth a bit last weekend as he dropped a sudden victory match against No. 10 Malik Heinselman (Ohio State).
Hildebrandt joined Penn State for the second semester after spending the majority of his career with Central Michigan. For the Chippewas, he was a three-time NCAA qualifier and finished fourth last year to become an All-American. With the Nittany Lions, Hildebrandt has gone 4-1 with his only defeat coming in a 2-1 match against No. 1 Nick Suriano (Michigan). After dropping that match on Friday, he bounced back with an 8-0 major decision over Tristan Lujan (Michigan State) on Sunday.
For Iowa to have a shot in this dual, Ayala absolutely has to win this match. The bout sets up a rather interesting dynamic. The Iowa wrestler is likely to have the advantage on the feet. His signature single leg has mostly translated to the college scene, and he has been able to take down basically every wrestler he has faced this season. On the other hand, Hildebrandt is very tough on top. Oftentimes, getting out on bottom can be one of the toughest tests for wrestlers coming right out of high school. With that being said, Ayala should be able to make enough of a difference early with his neutral offense to survive a ride from Hildebrandt.
Prediction: Ayala (Iowa) decision over Hildebrandt (Penn State)
133: No. 3 Austin DeSanto (Iowa) vs. No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State)
DeSanto enters this match against his rival with an undefeated 12-0 record. Following his victory over No. 26 Jake Gliva (Minnesota), DeSanto went on a bit of a mysterious hiatus. However, he returned to action this past weekend against Ohio State and scored a second-period 19-4 technical fall over Dylan Koontz. DeSanto is already a four-time NCAA qualifier and a two-time All-American.
Bravo-Young is back this season looking for his second-straight national title. He has already announced this will be his last season on the college mats, and so far, he has made the most of it. On the season, he is 10-0 with victories over the likes of No. 4 Michael McGee (Arizona State), No. 20 Joey Olivieri (Rutgers) and No. 8 Dylan Ragusin (Michigan).
DeSanto actually won the first two matches in this series during the 2018-2019 season. However, Bravo-Young has won the last three matches between the two. The first came via injury default during the 2020 season, and he followed that up with a 3-2 decision at the conference tournament. Last year, the pair met once against at the Big Ten Championships, and Bravo-Young won a 5-2 decision. That was his biggest margin of victory in the series. After some early trouble, it appears as if Bravo-Young has figured out DeSanto's offense, and it is hard to see a new result this weekend.
Prediction: Bravo-Young (Penn State) decision over DeSanto (Iowa)
141: No. 2 Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) vs. No. 1 Nick Lee (Penn State)
Eierman is already a four-time All-American whose college career began back in 2015 at Missouri. He made his debut for Iowa last season and made the NCAA final at this weight. Eierman has started his final season with an undefeated 12-0 record, but he has certainly had some close calls. He needed a late charge to defeat No. 12 Dresden Simon (Central Michigan) via a 13-12 decision, and he avoided a defensive fall to escape with a 7-6 decision over No. 24 Ryan Jack (NC State).
Of course, it was Lee that defeated Eierman to become the NCAA champion at this weight last season. He has missed some time this year due to illness, but he has been otherwise dominant. Lee is undefeated on the year through 10 matches, and is currently riding a six-match bonus-point streak. Last weekend, he scored a technical fall over Drew Mattin (Michigan) and a 13-1 major decision over Matt Santos (Michigan State).
Even though Eierman holds a victory over Lee that is less than 365 days old, it seems highly unlikely that he will be able to pull off the upset here. Lee seemed to learn that Eierman's best chance to score takedowns came off his offense. Once he slowed the pace and looked for a clean finish, he took control in the finals match. On top of that, Eierman's leg defense has seemed oddly suspect at times. In the past, he has not only prevented an opponent from scoring, but turned those attacks into points. This year, opponents have been able to finish more than the Iowa coaches probably would like. That is a bad sign going into a bout with Lee.
Prediction: Lee (Penn State) decision over Lee
149: No. 10 Max Murin (Iowa) vs. No. 19 Beau Bartlett (Penn State)
Two weeks ago, Murin pulled off an impressive upset over No. 11 Yahya Thomas (Northwestern), and he nearly upped it with another upset against No. 2 Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) last weekend. He scored a reversal to pull ahead in the final period, but Sasso eventually revered him back and took the 3-2 decision victory.
As a true freshman, Bartlett was a late addition to the lineup at 149 pounds, and he failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament through the Big Ten tournament. This year, he seems well on the way to earning a berth at the very least. He holds a 10-3 record on the year and has picked up wins over No. 20 PJ Ogunsanya (Army), No. 24 Anthony Artalona (Penn) and No. 9 Kyle Parco (Arizona State). Two weeks ago, he dropped a rideout match against No. 17 Mike Van Brill (Rutgers), but he bounced back last weekend with wins over Cole Mattin (Michigan) and Peyton Omania (Michigan State).
This is another match that Iowa likely needs to pull the upset. Murin has had solid results this season, but he may struggle in this bout. Bartlett is defensively sound, and Murin will likely not give him opportunities to score with his double from space. If this becomes a low-scoring bout, it swings in favor of Bartlett, who would be the favorite in a one-takedown match.
Prediction: Bartlett (Penn State) decision over Murin (Iowa)
157: No. 12 Kaleb Young (Iowa) vs. Terrell Barraclough/Tony Negron/Luke Gardner (Penn State)
Young is a three-time NCAA qualifier and a two-time All-American. He has gone 10-5 so far this season, but there have certainly been some bumps in the road. Against Division I opposition only, that record falls to 6-5. At one point this year, he dropped three-straight matches against No. 8 Josh Humphreys (Lehigh), No. 10 Ed Scott (NC State) and No. 4 Brayton Lee (Minnesota). Since that stretch, he has bounced back with a five-match winning streak. Last weekend, Young scored a 4-0 decision against No. 33 Jashon Hubbard (Ohio State).
The 157-pound spot for the Nittany Lions has been a bit of a revolving door. At the moment, the spot appears to belong to Barraclough, but Tony Negron has also gotten some run. Barraclough is 6-6 on the season, but he nearly pulled off an upset over No. 19 Chase Saldate (Michigan State) last Sunday. Despite the six losses, he has been game all season long and only given up bonus points once. Veteran Luke Gardner could also be in the mix for the Nittany Lions.
Young's experience and pedigree make him the favorite in this match. However, he has been prone to allowing upsets throughout his career. Barraclough often tries to push the pace, so it will be important for Young to secure an early lead. While the Hawkeye is not necessarily a dangerous rider, he can build riding time and occasionally can turn with his mat returns. If he is able to get out of the first period with the lead, he should be able to claim the victory.
Prediction: Young (Iowa) decision over Barraclough
165: No. 5 Alex Marinelli (Iowa) vs. No. 11 Brady Berge (Penn State)
Marinelli entered last Friday's dual against Ohio State as the number-one wrestler at this weight, and he left with his first loss of the season. He appeared to be in control against No. 4 Carson Kharchla after building the riding time. However, Kharchla then escaped and scored a takedown for the 3-2 victory. Outside of that one loss, the two-time All-American has won 14 matches, including wins over Danny Braunagel (Illinois) and No. 26 Cael Carlson (Minnesota).
By now, most in the wrestling world know that Berge had basically retired from wrestling and took a coaching job at South Dakota State. He then decided to make a comeback and joined Penn State in January. Since returning, the two-time NCAA qualifier has won all three of his matches and scored a 3-1 decision over No. 12 Cameron Amine (Michigan) last Friday.
Throughout his career, Marinelli has had the most trouble with strong defensive wrestlers. Berge certainly fits that mold, so this might turn into an interesting match. With that being said, Marinelli deserves to be the favorite. He had a solid strategy and was on the way to a win against Kharchla. If he is able to avoid mistakes, he should be able to complete the task against Berge.
Prediction: Marinelli (Iowa) decision over Berge (Penn State)
174: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (Iowa) vs. No. 1 Carter Starocci (Penn State)
Many expected Kemerer to go wire-to-wire last season as the number-one wrestler at this weight, and he nearly pulled it off. He entered the NCAA tournament undefeated and made it all the way to the final before falling against Starocci in sudden victory. Kemerer had taken a 7-2 decision over the Penn State representative at the Big Ten tournament. He is back this year looking to make one last run at the NCAA title. Despite getting a late start to the season, he is 5-0 and holds victories over No. 19 Gerrit Nijenhuis (Purdue) and No. 7 Ethan Smith (Ohio State).
Starocci finished his freshman season with the upset over Kemerer and a national title. He has carried that momentum into this season with an undefeated 13-0 record. Starocci has scored bonus points in 10 of his 13 matches. Last weekend, he scored a 3-2 decision over No. 6 Logan Massa (Michigan).
Not only did Kemerer get a late start to the season, but he has been wearing multiple knee sleeves and a shoulder brace this season. He has been in control of all his matches so far this season, but he clearly is not at a peak physical level. Starocci was able to win this bout last year, and he has only progressed since then. Strange things happen in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but Starocci deserves to be the favorite in this contest.
Prediction: Starocci (Penn State) decision over Kemerer (Iowa)
184: No. 17 Abe Assad (Iowa) vs. No. 1 Aaron Brooks (Penn State)
After missing the 2021 season due to injury, Assad has returned and regained his spot in the Hawkeye lineup. The sophomore holds a 9-3 record on the season and has already picked up impressive wins over No. 30 Max Lyon (Purdue) and No. 18 Zach Braunagel (Illinois). Last weekend, he nearly pulled off an upset over No. 6 Kaleb Romero (Ohio State) but ultimately dropped a 3-1 decision in sudden victory. As a true freshman back in 2020, Assad qualified for the NCAA championships through the Big Ten tournament.
Brooks blossomed into one of the best wrestlers at the Division I level last season and claimed the NCAA title. This year, he has returned to action and been arguably more dominant. He has won all 11 of his matches and already knocked off several of his top challengers. Back in December, he scored a 3-2 decision over No. 4 Parker Keckeisen (Northern Iowa). This month, he scored bonus-point victories over No. 11 Kyle Cochran (Maryland), No. 14 Donnell Washington (Indiana) and No. 7 John Poznanski (Rutgers). Last weekend, Brooks won one of the most hyped matches of the year as he defended a late takedown attempt and scored a counter to beat Olympic bronze medalist No. 2 Myles Amine (Michigan).
In the last three seasons combined, Brooks has exactly one loss. It came against No. 10 Taylor Venz (Nebraska) on Jan. 24, 2020. At the time, it seemed possible that the loss was a bad omen for Brooks. His very next match seven days later came against Assad. The Penn State wrestler more than answered the critics with a 7-3 match and has won every college match since. Assad appears to be rounding into form recently, but this one is a bridge too far.
Prediction: Brooks (Penn State) decision over Assad (Iowa)
197: No. 4 Jacob Warner (Iowa) vs. No. 2 Max Dean (Penn State)
Warner finished fourth at the NCAA tournament last year to become an All-American for the second time. He has gone 11-1 this season with his only loss coming against No. 16 Yonger Bastida (Iowa State) in the annual Cy-Hawk rivalry match. Last weekend, he fended off a late upset bid from No. 21 Gavin Hoffman (Ohio State), but he managed to escape with the 6-5 victory.
Dean transferred to Penn State from Cornell prior to this season, and the former NCAA runner-up has fit in quite nicely in the lineup. Prior to last weekend, he was undefeated and held victories over No. 7 Greg Bulsak (Rutgers), No. 11 Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State) and No. 19 Jacob Cardenas (Cornell). Last Friday, Dean survived a tough match against No. 6 Patrick Brucki (Michigan). Brucki had the only two matches in regulation, but Dean rode out the third period to force overtime and ultimately won in sudden victory. On Sunday, he lost for the first time this season as he allowed a late takedown by No. 10 Cameron Caffey (Michigan State).
This should be a pretty good style matchup for Dean. Warner likely does not have the neutral offense to get to his legs, and the Hawkeye has had trouble getting off the bottom at times. If Dean is able to score an early takedown, he should be able to ride his way to a victory.
Prediction: Dean (Penn State) decision over Warner (Iowa)
285: No. 5 Anthony Cassioppi (Iowa) vs. No. 3 Greg Kerkvliet (Penn State)
Cassioppi returned this year after a third-place finish at the NCAA tournament. His season got off to a bit of a rough start as he was rolled to his back and pinned by Jack DelGarbino (Princeton). However, since then, he has settled down and built a 9-2 record, with his only other loss coming against No. 1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota). Cassioppi has picked up wins over No. 8 Matt Stencel (Central Michigan), No. 7 Jordan Wood (Lehigh), No. 10 Lucas Davison (Northwestern) and No. 13 Tate Orndorff (Ohio State).
Kerkvliet had many laudable freestyle accomplishments on his resume. However, some were disappointed with his seventh-place finish at the last NCAA tournament. This season appears to be a different story. Not only is Kerkvliet undefeated, but he also announced himself with a big victory over NCAA runner-up Mason Parris (Michigan) last weekend. The Nittany Lion has also scored wins over No. 9 Gary Traub (Oregon State) and No. 17 Lewis Fernandes (Cornell).
These two met last season at the Big Ten tournament. Cassioppi dominated the match on the way to a 9-0 major decision. Despite that result, Kerkvliet has been a different wrestler this season. He has recovered from his injuries and has shown a takedown ability that was absent last year. Cassioppi still might be able to have an impact from the top position, but in the neutral position, it is likely Kerkvliet will be the one scoring takedowns.
Prediction: Kerkvliet (Penn State) decision over Cassioppi
Team Score Prediction: 21-9 Penn State