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Leistikow: Top-ranked Hawkeye wrestlers show their strength, growth in rout of Ohio State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tom Brands left top-ranked Iowa’s 24-10 wrestling dual win Friday against No. 3 Ohio State upset about a few things, but mostly about himself.

“I need to be better,” the 14th-year Iowa coach said. “We need to be better.”

A heated 2-1 loss for top-ranked Pat Lugo was fresh on Brands’ mind after Iowa’s 149-pounder went 0-for-3 on official reviews, including being denied a sudden-victory takedown on a cradle attempt that enticed Brands to demonstratively lob the green challenge brick onto the mat. Brands also cost Iowa a team point by walking onto the mat following heavyweight Tony Cassioppi’s win.

Austin DeSanto manhandled Ohio State's Jordan Decatur with 12 takedowns in a 27-12 rout.

“I just need to be more of a professional out there,” Brands said. “There were some things that were frustrating.”

He went on to say he needed to learn to chill out.

But look closer, coach, and you’ll see a lineup that’s grown by leaps and bounds from 2019 to 2020.

And, by the way, you’re doing one heck of a job, too.

No, this wasn’t the Ohio State powerhouse we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing over the past five years. But one of the reasons the Buckeyes had no chance Friday was because the Hawkeyes were on the attack, much to the delight of 13,405 gleeful fans.

Let’s start at the lower weights, even though this dual began with No. 2-ranked Alex Marinelli’s 14-10 decision at 165 pounds.

A year ago at this time, 125-pounder Spencer Lee was scuffling (by his standards) after a loss in the Midlands Championships. This year, he has taken his wrestling to a new level. On Friday, he recorded an 18-0 technical fall of Hunter Lucas in 2 minutes, 32 seconds.

That’s an 84-1 margin in his last five bouts, all tech falls. Lee has won his first two NCAA titles as a No. 3 seed. It's a good bet he'll start this year's bracket in Minneapolis as the No. 1 seed.

“My mindset is to score points, and I’m going to try to score points every second of the match for seven minutes, and more if needed,” Lee said. “It just so happens I’ve been getting these tech falls.”

A year ago, 133-pounder Austin DeSanto was handed multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and even suspended for a match during a solid-but-uneven 23-6 season. Now, the junior’s pace looks a lot like that of Lee's … or, dare I say, that of his coaches back in the day, Tom and Terry Brands.

DeSanto’s 27-12 technical fall of No. 15 Jordan Decatur was a takedown clinic (12 in all). Takedown, escape, takedown, repeat. He hasn’t had any post-match antics during a 12-1 season. What changed?

“I’m calmer, being more of a leader,” DeSanto said. “I’m ... more focused every single time I’m in the room. Hitting the same routines. You get it rolling, and it works out. Your body’s used to it.”

Let’s keep going.

Even though Lugo lost at 149, he will get another crack at sixth-ranked Sammy Sasso at the Big Ten Conference championships. Lugo has had three nine-loss seasons (including two at Edinboro) and has never finished above eighth at the NCAA Championships. But this year, he’s a national-title contender in a wide-open weight class. Friday's controversial result doesn't change that. 

Iowa is as solid as last year with Kaleb Young at 157 and Marinelli at 165.

Iowa is markedly better at 174 pounds (where it didn’t have an NCAA qualifier a year ago), with No. 2 Michael Kemerer logging his third straight win against a highly ranked opponent. Kemerer (8-0) made it look easy with a 7-1 decision against No. 12 Kaleb Romero. 

Iowa has upgraded at 184. Brands knew what he was doing in pulling Abe Assad’s redshirt, and the true freshman had the packed house on its feet with a takedown of Rocky Jordan with 50 seconds left that produced a 3-1 win. Assad seems unfazed no matter what is thrown his way. 

Heavyweight is better. Freshman Tony Cassioppi electrified the crowd with his powerful takedowns of Gary Traub in a 9-3 win. Cassioppi, folks, is still undefeated at 13-0 … and boy is he fun to watch.

And consider this: Brands didn’t start two top-five wrestlers — 141-pounder Max Murin (“nicked,” per Brands, and questionable for next week’s Penn State dual) and 197-pounder Jacob Warner (coach’s decision; “was the best thing for him … he’s fine”) — and the Hawkeyes still dominated the No. 3 team in the country.

When’s the last time you could say that?

This Hawkeye team has wrestled in five Big Ten duals and won 44 of 50 bouts.

There are still things to improve, of course. But there's a lot to be happy about.

As Brands’ post-match news conference wound down, he seemed to begin to appreciate how this team is continuing to show its strength as the national-title favorite. Next Friday's sold-out showdown against No. 2 Penn State will tell us more. 

“Seven to three in matches, right? And why do I feel like it was even? That’s what I mean. I’ve just got to chill out,” he said. “I’ve got to learn to enjoy 7-3 against the No. 3 team in the country.

“But c’mon, I want to take on the whole doggone world right now. The guys did a good job. Lugo, if they call that cradle rule, 8-2. If (Carter) Happel believes, 9-1. If we throw Warner out there, 10-0. How’s that for chilling out?”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.