Leistikow: Friday was just the beginning for Penn State vs. Iowa wrestling fireworks

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Tom Brands understands. So does Cael Sanderson. So did the 14,905 raucous fans that packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Friday night’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 wrestling dual between Penn State and Iowa.

The team victory was something all parties wanted in this much-hyped, highly anticipated spectacle.

And Penn State got it, 19-13, to snap Iowa’s 29-match dual-meet winning streak.

But everyone understands that this was just Round 1 of 3 between the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes.

Round 1 was Friday’s dual.

Round 2 is the Big Ten Championships March 5-6 at Nebraska.

Round 3 (the only round that ultimately matters and what Rounds 1 and 2 are building for): The NCAA Championships March 17-19 in Detroit.

That’s why the savvy Carver crowd was on its feet as it watched heavyweight Tony Cassioppi deliver arguably the Hawkeyes’ most impressive performance to close the riveting 2½-hour dual. Even though Iowa was down, 19-10, in the team race with no shot to emerge victorious, the booming ovation for fifth-ranked Cassioppi’s third-period takedown and ride-out for a 7-2 victory against third-ranked Greg Kerkvliet served as a signal that this Penn State-Iowa battle for 2022 supremacy is very close ... and just beginning.

Also, both sides acknowledged frustration that this wasn’t their finest performance.

“We didn’t look great tonight,” Penn State’s Sanderson said. “Energy levels weren’t great.”

From the Iowa perspective, the close matches constantly broke the wrong way.

“We’ve got to finish,” Iowa’s Brands said. “We’ve got to finish matches better.”

Third-ranked Austin DeSanto was the aggressor against No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young at 133 pounds but fell short, 3-2.

No. 2 Jaydin Eierman did a great job forcing overtime at 141 but, for the second straight meeting against No. 1 Nick Lee, got taken down in sudden victory and lost, 6-4.

And No. 2 Michael Kemerer initially appeared to have upended No. 1 Carter Starocci with a last-second takedown in sudden victory. But a video review ruled the takedown occurred after time expired, and Starocci emerged a 2-1 winner in the tiebreaker.

Michael Kemerer, right, had a lot of chances to get the victorious takedown against Penn State's Carter Starocci but couldn't quite finish in a 2-1 loss in a 10-minute bout settled on a tiebreaker.

Three Hawkeyes were within an eyelash of taking down three No. 1s.

Those losses sting now, but they'll sting a lot worse in March. 

“Fortunately, it’s January still,” Brands said. “… We have to do a better job. We know that. Little things make a big difference.”

Give Penn State credit. It didn’t have its best effort — Sanderson said the team was drained by an eight-hour bus ride home from Michigan State on Sunday night — but was clutch in key moments.

For instance, Bravo-Young injected very little action against DeSanto. But down 2-0 late in the second period, he engineered a takedown with 17 seconds left and rode out DeSanto to make it 2-2. Those 17 seconds out of seven minutes were all Bravo-Young ultimately needed with a third-period escape giving him the margin of victory. That's an outcome DeSanto can learn from.

“It seemed like in some of those matches we protected a little bit too much,” Brands said. “Any time you’re waiting, protecting, holding on. … As we get into the postseason, that’s the things we’ve got to eliminate.”

Sanderson credited Iowa and its fans for a spirited effort. He also praised Hawkeye coaches for intelligent scouting reports that pushed his guys to the limits. Remember, this was a Penn State team that walloped No. 3 Michigan, 29-6, seven days earlier in Ann Arbor.

“You can tell they put a lot of work in, and it shows,” Sanderson said of Iowa. “We can kind of go watch and see what they’re doing to us and learn from this experience.”

It’s fair to conclude that Iowa, the defending NCAA champion, would’ve won this dual if three-time national champion Spencer Lee (out for the season after two knee surgeries) was available. Lee would’ve been worth at least a major decision against No. 7 Drew Hildebrandt, who got his own major at 125 pounds against Jesse Ybarra, Iowa’s third-stringer. That’s an eight-point swing in a dual decided by six. Heck, Iowa might’ve won the dual if freshman Drake Ayala had been healthy and available (he was neither on Friday, and Brands provided an ambiguous update on Ayala's medical situation).

What is clear, though, is that Iowa’s margin for error minus Spencer Lee is thin if it has a prayer to repeat as NCAA team champions. This is a very, very formidable Penn State team that completely deserves the No. 1 ranking with six wrestlers enjoying top-three status entering Friday. But this isn’t the juggernaut band of Nittany Lions that we've seen in past years that dominated the NCAA Championships.

The Hawkeyes are right there. But, first and foremost, they need to stay healthy. They can’t afford another key injury. They need guys like Max Murin and Kaleb Young — who delivered important wins Friday — to be all-Americans. DeSanto, Eierman, Alex Marinelli, Kemerer, Jacob Warner and Cassioppi have to be singularly minded, that being fresh and primed for March 5-6 in Lincoln is the most important task at hand.

Penn State and Iowa will both be there for that NCAA qualifier.

By then, nobody will care what happened Jan. 28 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Round 2 awaits.

“Good thing we’re in the Big Ten, right?” Marinelli said. “We’re going to get 'em again.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi, left, is greeted by teammates after his victory at 285 pounds during Friday's dual against Penn State.

No. 1 Penn State 19, No. 2 Iowa 13

125 — Drew Hildebrandt (PSU) major dec. Jesse Ybarra, 9-0

133 — Roman Bravo-Young (PSU) dec. Austin DeSanto, 3-2

141 — Nick Lee (PSU) dec. Jaydin Eierman, 6-4 SV1

149 — Max Murin (IA) dec. Beau Bartlett, 4-1

157 — Kaleb Young (IA) dec. Terrell Barraclough, 2-0

165 — Alex Marinelli (IA) major dec. Brady Berge, 10-2

174 — Carter Starocci (PSU) dec. Michael Kemerer, 2-1 TB1

184 — Aaron Brooks (PSU) dec. Abe Assad, 8-3

197 — Max Dean (PSU) dec. Jacob Warner, 8-3.

Hwt. — Tony Cassioppi (IA) dec. Greg Kerkvliet, 7-2