The top ranked Iowa Hawkeyes will wrestle #6 Penn State in a sold-out Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday at 1pm. The huge dual meet will be broadcast live on BTN. We sat down with Black Heart Gold Pants' wrestling guru RossWB to get some perspective on his Hawkeyes, ahead of this dual that the entire wrestling world is discussing.
UPDATE: bonus coverage at The Pants, via role reversal.
BSD: The last 5 weeks have been an almost undisturbed train of awesomeness for the Hawkeyes. You blow away the field at Midlands. You stomp Okie State's guts out in Stillwater. And last Friday, you cruise past Minnesota at the Barn in front of 14,000 fans, in a dual that was effectively over after the first two bouts. When is the last time you've felt this confident in your Hawks? And what was Goldy's crowd like? How awesome was it to be part of that 14k on the road?
ROSS: This is the most confident I've been in Iowa in a long, long time. I don't think I'd have to quite go back to the last national championship season (2009-10), because Iowa still had a really, really good team in 2010-11 (they only lost the Big Ten Championship to Penn State that year by one measly point), but... yeah. It's been a while. This is a really fun team to watch. You've got your savvy vets like Mike Evans and Bobby Telford. You've got your young guns who are excited to get out there and get after people like Brandon Sorensen and Sammy Brooks. And you've got Thomas Gilman wrestling like a man possessed over the last month and good stories like Mike Kelly, who took untold amounts of shit from Hawkeye fans over the last four years, but is really wrestling pretty darn well as a senior up at 157 lbs. This team just has so much depth from top to bottom; it's fun to go into a dual or a tournament and not feel nervous about a weight completely tanking.
I attended last Friday's Minnesota-Iowa dual meet in-person and had a great time. There were a lot of Iowa fans there -- probably 3-400, which is pretty good considering the unfriendly 6 PM CT start time -- but Minnesota fans really showed out well, too. Minnesota fans love to root against Iowa in anything and a 1 versus 2 dual meet piques the curiosity of even casual wrestling fans. They were pretty amped at the start of the night, but Iowa's fast start (12-0 after three weights) took the air out of their balloon quickly. But it was really great to see a crowd like that at a wrestling meet.
BSD: I'm writing this before Intermat's Tuesday ranking update, which might drop Burak below McIntosh at 197. But whatever - without Dylan Alton in the lineup due to injury, right now your Hawks are favored by ranking at all 10 weights. (Wow is that depressing to write). Are there 5 matches that PSU could take, from your side of the bench?
ROSS: Sure. I think 133 is basically a coin-flip and wouldn't be surprised in the least to see Gulibon win. He's looked much improved this season (he just looks flat-out more confident, more than anything), he's at home, and Clark has had some struggles against top-10 133ers this year. Mike Kelly is a good story, but he still struggles against top-10 guys, so if Dylan Alton is healthy and wrestles on Sunday, I could definitely see him beating Kelly. 174 is yet another coin-flip match; Brown and Evans are really evenly matched and that match could easily go to either guy. I'd favor the guy that's able to land the first takedown and dictate the rest of the match. 197 should be a match where Penn State is favored, given McIntosh's past wins over Burak, so that's an easy weight to chalk up for Penn State. Jeva and Moore wrestle so many matches close that upsets at 141 and 165 are at least plausible, even if on paper Jeva and Moore are better than their opponents. And heavyweight matches almost always come down to one move; Telford's awful hard to score on, but if you're going to wrestle so close to the bone, you have to be prepared for the possibility of an upset.
BSD: I watched Brandon Sorensen barely survive Gabe Moreno in late November, and figured that 149lbs would be Brody Grothus' for one more year. Since then, he's cleared the launch pad and gone into Low Earth Orbit. Sorensen started January ranked outside the top 8. He's finished the month at #2. Where on the Brandon Sorensen 2015 season graph does his January fall? Was it the apex? Or, was it merely a point along an asypmtote-like curve bound towards infitity, defined as the top of the podium in March?
ROSS: Man, I don't even know. I was excited to see what Sorensen could do this year because he had a really good redshirt year (24-4, highlighted by a 3rd place finish at Midlands) and because there was a lot of good buzz around him from the usual practice sources, but I certainly didn't expect anything like this. I mean, in December we weren't even sure he'd be the starter at 149 this year -- he and Grothus were pretty close and Grothus had some nice results at the weight last year. Grothus suffered an ankle injury at Midlands and that gave Sorensen an opportunity that he's grabbed with both hands.
The win over Hunter Stieber was a head-turner, but you could downplay it a little because Stieber was coming back from an injury and looked completely gassed by the time the third period rolled around. The win that really convinced me that Sorensen was for real was the win over Kindig in Stillwater -- he just flat-out took it to last year's NCAA runner-up and looked decisively better. Moreover, he looked like he really belonged with the top guys at 149. And then when he beat T-shirt at his own dumb game, well... how could I not start dreaming big? We went into the season hoping 149 could get a few wins in March and maybe sneak onto the podium; now 149 feels like it could be one of our best weights. Rematches with Stieber and/or T-shirt loom at the Big Ten Tournament and I want to see how he handles those before I start getting any Saturday night fever for Sorensen, but... he really feels like he can be a top guy at this weight right now. (It helps, too, that 149 isn't the strongest weight around.)
BSD: Are your Hawks the favorites in March? I mean, you're the clear favorites, right? You started the year with zero finalists based on rankings. Now you're at three - one more than Minnesota, who had five at one point this season.
ROSS: I think they are the favorites, yeah, and I get why -- they have tremendous depth across the board, as well as a handful of guys that look like they could be wrestling on Saturday night in St. Louis. They don't have any bonus point demigods like David Taylor or Ed Ruth or Logan Stieber, but that's still looks like a pretty good formula for winning a championship. But I'm also not at all convinced that Iowa is going to run away and hide in St. Louis, either.
Not having that big bonus point guy reduces their margin of error -- they can't count on some pins or tech falls to balance out guys suffering an upset elsewhere in the bracket. Their points are going to come from advancement points and placement points. If everything goes according to the rankings, they should have nine All-Americans and, yeah, if they really do have nine All-Americans they should win the title pretty handily. But it's also not that hard for me to picture scenarios where Iowa doesn't get all those All-Americans. Josh Dziewa is ranked #6, but am I that confident at him making the podium? Heck no. Nick Moore is ranked #8, but he's struggled this year -- to say nothing of his past meltdowns in March. 133 is a flat-out crazy weight, so who knows what happens to Cory Clark there, you know? Maybe Sorensen or Brooks stumble a little under the bright lights. And when you have so many guys who wrestle tight matches, like Evans, Burak, and Telford, potential upsets can be lurking behind almost every corner. (Although winning close matches is a skill, too, and those guys seem to have it in spades.)
Some of that is worst-case scenario spitballing, sure, but the point is that Iowa's status as the favorite is a little more tenuous than it looks, I think. They're a fantastic dual meet team. They're a very, very good tournament team, too, but there are question marks there and reasons to slow the hype train just a bit. This is also a team that hasn't been at its best in March for 4 or 5 years. I like this team a lot and I have big hopes for them, but there are still some questions I need to see them answer.
BSD: In back-to-back weeks Iowa wrestles two duals away from home in front of 30,000 fans. That's obviously a first of its kind. But wrestling dual attendance seems to be growing at places other than just Iowa, Penn State, and Minnesota. Is this the start of something great, an anomaly, or something good that could be even better with a few tweaks?
ROSS: I'm not sure, but I hope it's the start of something great. I think the relative parity we've seen this year has helped -- Iowa's the favorite, yes, but Minnesota has a very good team, Ohio State has a strong squad, Missouri is really good, and Cornell and Illinois have some lineups, too. Penn State and Oklahoma State are rebuilding this year, but especially with Penn State it feels like your four-year reign has made a lot of new fans who are sticking with the sport. That's great news.
That said, Iowa-Minnesota, Iowa-Penn State, National Duals at Iowa City... I mean, there's a common denominator there, you know? Iowa remains a great draw in college wrestling, especially when they have a really good team, but we need more teams that draw crowds. Penn State draws some good crowds, too, but we just need more teams that can do that. Ohio State has a very good team and looks poised to be very good for years to come; there's no reason they shouldn't be able to draw good crowds, too. Minnesota should be able to draw good crowds more often than when Iowa hits The Barn.
And as far as "something good that could be even better with a few tweaks," I think that's a no-brainer, but if we started talking about ways to tweak the rules and make the sport more entertaining to watch, we could go for another 1000 words.
A big thanks to Ross for making time for us Penn Staters here at BSD! Be sure to swing by The Pants for more of Ross' perspective on this huge dual.
UPDATE: bonus coverage