IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tom Brands talked punctuation in the days leading up to his team’s tallest challenge of the season. The Iowa wrestling coach asked for statements and exclamations against Penn State rather than a series of lingering questions.
But after the third-ranked Hawkeyes topped the No. 1 Nittany Lions 22-16 Friday night in front of a sellout crowd of 15,077 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa presented a few more talking points to the college wrestling world.
If the Hawkeyes wrestle like this in a couple months, can they end Penn State’s two-year stay at the top of the college wrestling ladder?
Did they just give a few other teams hope of knocking off the Nittany Lions at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines?
“When you’re poking holes in people’s tails, there’s going to be other doubters, there’s going to be other teams that are going to try to take a piece out of Penn State,” said sixth-ranked Iowa 174-pounder Mike Evans, who topped No. 4 Matt Brown 4-3. “But Penn State is a good team, and they’re going to bounce back from this, I guarantee it.”
The postseason individual championships are a different animal. It’s a format that lends itself to the strength of high-powered stars, such as the three national champions Penn State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) possesses in its lineup.
But Iowa (16-1, 6-0) claimed victories in six matches and grabbed the lead in the Big Ten dual standings.
“I hate losing, and dual meets are important,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “I’m not saying this dual meet isn’t important. It’s bragging rights for a year, and we want to win duals as bad as anything outside of the Big Ten and national championship.”
NCAA champs David Taylor, Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright helped the Nittany Lions rack up an 80-62 advantage in match points, but the Hawkeyes prevailed in all of the tight bouts. They also picked up a fall at 133 from Tony Ramos and a major decision at 141 from Mark Ballweg to snap Penn State’s 20-meet winning streak.
“In the grand scheme of things, you’ve got to get ready every week,” Brands said. “This was a big one. We highlighted it, they highlighted it, and now you go forward. Sometimes, though, you can maybe smile a little bit, and I’m probably smiling a little bit right now. Not to the point where you’re slapping yourself on the back so much, but more (because) there was some toughness.”
Toughness was an element Brands felt the Hawkeyes lacked in recent weeks. He blasted off on Jan. 4 after Iowa handled then-No. 4 Ohio State 22-9, saying: “I don’t have a team right now.” He pointed to missed opportunities to finish holds and bouts later in the month when Iowa lost at No. 2 Oklahoma State and edged then-No. 3 Minnesota on criteria.
“It was a problem that was worse than it is now,” said Brands, whose team couldn’t breathe easily until heavyweight Bobby Telford earned a 9-2 win against Jon Gingrich. “We finished bouts.”
Iowa’s Matt McDonough fought off attacks by Nico Megaludis in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime and later won a 2-1 decision in a tiebreaker in a rematch of last year’s 125-pound NCAA title bout.
Ramos then turned the noise of the seventh-largest dual crowd in NCAA history to max volume by decking Jordan Conaway midway through the second period. The No. 2 133-pounder said he took the mat Friday thinking about words from Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands, who challenged Ramos to “build your legend” with a performance Iowa fans will remember for years to come.
“(College wrestling fans are) always talking about Taylor and Ruth getting the falls,” Ramos said. “They never mention an Iowa guy getting a fall. They think we don’t know how to pin, but it’s something we work on, it’s something we know how to do.”
The dual, though, essentially tipped in Iowa’s favor on a pair of last-minute scrambles.
Top-ranked Derek St. John trailed by a point and found himself in danger of falling further behind, fighting off a leg shot midway through the third period against fifth-ranked Dylan Alton at 157. But few in college wrestling turn defense into offense better than St. John, who wiggled free and came up with a takedown with 32 seconds remaining. He rode Alton the rest of the way for a 4-3 decision.
Evans found himself in a similar predicament in a tie match against Brown, flipped on his head with only a grip on one shoe preventing the Iowa sophomore from surrendering the go-ahead takedown. But somehow Evans emerged from the flurry with a leg and finished the counter-attack for a takedown with 43 seconds remaining.
“You give a lot of credit to our guys,” Brands said. “This can be a blip, or this can be progress. … I think there’s progress.”
IOWA 22, PENN STATE 16
125: McDonough (I) dec. Megaludis, 2-1 (TB1); 133: Ramos (I) pinned Conaway, 4:23; 141: Ballweg (I) maj. dec. Pearsall, 12-2 149: Alton (P) mamj. dec. Grothus, 18-8; 157: St. John (I) dec. Alton, 4-3; 165: Taylor (P) won by technical fall over Moore, 18-2; 174: Evans (I) dec. Brown, 4-3; 184: Ruth (P) maj. dec. Gambrall, 21-10; 197: Wright (P) dec. Burak, 8-3; Hwt: Telford (I) dec. Gingrich, 9-2.