During his turns behind the microphone last summer on the Iowa banquet circuit, Tom Brands would point to one shortcoming his program needed to address in its quest for conference and national wrestling supremacy.
Like everyone else in college wrestling, the Hawkeyes had fallen behind Penn State and the stack of bonus points it could accrue with a lineup led by NCAA champions David Taylor and Ed Ruth. But if Iowa could score postseason points at all 10 weights, the Hawkeyes might loosen the Nittany Lions’ grip on the Big Ten and NCAA crowns.
“I’ve been telling the (I-Club) groups that it could and may define our season,” Brands said in early November.
Four months later, the Hawkeyes enter this weekend’s Big Ten Championships at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center as the only team in the conference with 10 wrestlers seeded fifth or better. They’ve fixed the 149-pound spot that’s been the program’s Achilles’ heel since two-time NCAA champion Brent Metcalf’s graduation in 2010, and they’re stronger across the board than they’ve been during the last three years.
“I think that’s big,” said Iowa senior Ethen Lofthouse, the No. 3 seed at 184 pounds. “And I think all of us can start to feed off that.”
Here’s the problem for the Hawkeyes, though: They still might need to wrestle better than their seeds to top Penn State.
With Taylor and Ruth — neither has lost in four seasons against Big Ten opposition — plus three other No. 1 seeds, the Nittany Lions have an edge on paper over Iowa and Minnesota.
“I know we have our work cut out for us, and I know our guys are excited about the competition and we are, too, as coaches,” Brands said. “This is the time of year when you’ve got to wrestle above your seeds, and if you’re the No. 1 seed you’ve got to wrestle above that and score a lot of points. That’s the way you’re going to rise to the top. There’s no other way to do it.”
Senior Tony Ramos, a two-time Big Ten finalist at 133 pounds, is Iowa’s lone No. 1 seed. Eight others are placed in the No. 3, 4 or 5 spots in the bracket, setting the stage for a series of critical quarterfinal matches for the Hawkeyes.
Brands said it’s imperative for Iowa to force the action and continue putting points on the board.
“The rules and the way passivity is allowed to take place, we cannot fall into that trap,” he said. “I’m not saying we haven’t come out on top in some 1-0 and low-scoring matches. That’s what you have to do to win tough matches. But we also have to be able to widen the gap.
“As coaches, you talk about it and you emphasize it, but when the rules don’t penalize passivity you’re going to see more passivity. What we need to do is we need to go out and do what we do best, and that’s our holds and our action and the things we can control to move that score forward like a pinball machine.”