Penn State started the season as the favorite to trot off with wrestling’s NCAA championship trophy for the third time in a row.
And make no mistake, it still is.
That remains true, even after third-ranked Iowa kicked the No. 1 Nittany Lions’ 20-dual win streak to the college curb Friday in a raucous, 22-16 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. That remains reasoned and logical, even as Penn State landed on the wrong side of the scoreboard for the first time since the calendar showed 2011.
But hit the pause button on the coronation for a half a second.
Iowa just made things more interesting.
“You’re saying, ‘Relevancy’?” Iowa coach Tom Brands parroted in a quiet arena stairwell when asked what one chilly night in early February meant. “There’s relevancy that you’re moving your team forward. Does it mean anything in a tournament setting or tournament points or (the ability of) winning five or six matches to win the whole sha-bang?
“What it tells you is that your team’s moving forward.”
Hidden in what sounded like a coaching cliché was another dose of truth.
Iowa moved forward, clearly and consistently … at 133 pounds, where second-ranked Tony Ramos finished a blink-and-miss-it pin over Jordan Conaway that caused a roar that threatened to shake arena seats from their concrete anchors … at 141, where Mark Ballweg’s major decision over Bryan Pearsall added critical bonus points … at 174, where sixth-ranked Mike Evans won a man-sized swing match over No. 4 Matt Brown, 4-3.
In the biggest moments when Iowa failed to move forward, it refused to move back.
At 125, two-time NCAA champion Matt McDonough fought off 2012 finalist foe Nico Megaludis 2-1 after three overtime periods in a match that could have robbed wind from Iowa’s upset sails before fans had fully warmed up seats.
At 157, Derek St. John — an NCAA runner-up a season ago — twisted, turned, contorted and denied No. 5 Dylan Alton, 4-3.
Nothing has changed about Penn State’s scoring potential for the NCAA Championships that will rumble into Des Moines this March. National champs Ed Ruth, Quentin Wright and David Taylor still park a pile of NCAA points in their suitcases.
Iowa, though, seems unwilling — as always — to go quietly into that good NCAA night.
Penn State, as it consistently has during back-to-back NCAA title runs under Iowa State legend Cael Sanderson, has no plans to perch anyplace but the top of the medal stand, no matter what the final score in Iowa City indicated.
“We’re going to be very tough to beat in March,” Sanderson said.
The question as this season began was clear: Could anyone close the gap with the brawlers in blue?
On one hand, Iowa’s dual win came inside the black-and-friendly confines of its home arena. Then again, the looming, sold out NCAA Championships at Wells Fargo Arena will feel like Carver West.
Dan Gable, a former Iowa State legend himself who added another scoop of legend as coach of the Hawkeyes, said the tone-setting matches of McDonough, Ramos and Ballweg provided a preview of the vocal cords waiting in Polk County.
“About as loud as you can get — before you break your eardrums,” Gable said of the decibel display. “I’ll take a broken eardrum for that, though.”
The Nittany Lions gained both a wakeup call and workout room leverage on Friday, tools for Sanderson to steer psyches into even sharper focus.
So what was learned in the midst of the dual-meet din?
Handicapping potential NCAA team favorites often happens with the emotionless precision of a mathematician applying pencil to paper. In this sport, though, heart and mind and gut and sweat have a way of muscling out the cold, hard facts.
Remember in 1997, when Oklahoma State was labeled the overwhelming favorite heading into NCAAs in Gable’s final season coaching the Hawkeyes? For one, a story rose out of the practice room that season, in the form of Iowa’s unlikely national champ Jesse Whitmer. For another, far too many underestimated what it meant for the many-acts play to unfold on state soil.
Oklahoma State was favored then. On paper.
Penn State is favored now. On paper.
Did Iowa close the gap Friday night? Are all loyal to Herky, including Brands, more confident than before that the Nittany Lions — whose average margin of victory during the 20-dual streak was nearly 32 points — can be challenged in March?
“I don’t make predictions like that. Never have, never will,” Brands said. “I know one thing: We believe in our guys and we like our guys. We’re going to continue to say that. But we’re not going to make predictions.”
Few could dispute that Penn State remains the favorite for a third straight title.
It seems now, though, that the Hawkeyes are going to force the Nittany Lions to work up a championship-sized sweat before surrendering a crown — the most important headgear of all.