Top-ranked Iowa wrestlers open pivotal home stretch with big win over No. 10 Nebraska

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This Iowa wrestling team has shown this season that dominance can take on many forms.

It can look like winning all 10 matches in a dual, which Iowa has done against three separate teams already — UT-Chattanooga in November, and then both Indiana and No. 8 Purdue last weekend.

It can look like a bevy of bonus points, and the Hawkeyes have more than enough firepower to produce those, as shown in their wins over No. 14 Iowa State, No. 6 Wisconsin and their record-setting performance at the Midlands Championships last month (which was without the full services of arguably their two best wrestlers, by the way).

On Saturday night, here inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, it looked like winning eight of 10 matches in a 26-6 win over No. 10 Nebraska. It looked like winning four of five matches over ranked opponents thanks to third-period takedowns. It looked like 12,883 who braved the cold to watch this in person cheering on a true freshman as he wins his Carver debut over a past All-American.

“There’s nothing better than that,” said Iowa’s Abe Assad, who beat Nebraska’s fifth-ranked Taylor Venz, 6-4, at 184 pounds in his Carver debut. “That’s what you put all those hours in the practice room for, for moments just like that.

“I loved it. It was awesome.”

Do not let the Huskers’ current ranking fool you. This is a team with four past All-Americans in the lineup. Earlier this year, they won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, the toughest in-season tournament of the college season. They are going to be in the mix for a top-four finish at the NCAA Championships come March.

So Saturday’s result was a feather in the Hawkeyes’ cap, even if a smaller one. They are now 7-0 overall and 4-0 against the Big Ten, while Nebraska drops to 5-2 and 0-2. This was the first win in what'll be a pivotal month for top-ranked Iowa, as No. 3 Ohio State comes to town next week and No. 2 Penn State, winners of eight of the last nine national team titles, visits the week after.

In a way, Iowa’s win over Nebraska — its 11th-straight over the Huskers, by the way — was a lesson in toughness. Though the Hawkeyes won eight of 10 matches, half of them were decided on third-period takedowns. They all came in a row, too, from 157 pounds through 184.

“Here’s the thing,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said, “we got out-strategized. There’s no doubt … there’s a lot going through my head. We were flat. Nebraska went to Madison, they were flat, they got beat, so you know what they’re coming in here to do. You know it.

“They executed some strategy. We won eight matches, and they worked hard to keep it close to beat us in the end.”

Kaleb Young started the run with a 6-4 win over Peyton Robb at 157. Young and Robb traded takedowns through the first two periods, then the Iowa junior scored the match-winner with 34 seconds left and rode out to win and put Iowa up 14-3 at the intermission.

After the break, Alex Marinelli gave up a takedown late in the first period and trailed Isaiah White, a returning All-American, 2-0, at 165 pounds. Marinelli fought back with a tough second-period rideout and then scored an escape and takedown in the third to win, 4-3, with the help of a riding-time point.

At 174 pounds, Michael Kemerer beat Mikey Labriola, yet another returning All-American, 3-1 by scoring a takedown with 16 seconds left in the third period — off a shot initiated by Labriola. Kemerer forced a scramble and used strong hips to come out on top for the winner.

Then came Assad’s Carver debut, and he, too, rallied to win on a third-period takedown. Against Venz, a 2018 All-American, Assad opened with a headlock attempt in the first period, but gave up a takedown in the process. He fought back with two of his own — one in the second period to tie it, 3-3, thanks to an emphatic mat return, then another in the third to win.

“I felt like that mat return was definitely a turning point,” Assad said. “After that, he was still fighting, but the fight was kind of lessened and weakened, for sure.”

Those close matches made this dual much more competitive. In all, Iowa scored 47 total match points to Nebraska’s 27 — and 18 of the Hawkeyes’ match-point total belonged to Spencer Lee, who opened the night with an 18-0 technical fall over Alex Thomsen, a four-time Iowa state champion from Underwood — and scored just 13 total takedowns to the Huskers’ six.

“Is that good?” Brands said. “Yeah, it’s good. But you don’t have to wait. Widen that gap in the first period. Make it fun, and get a little momentum going. Steamroll.”

Iowa's Alex Marinelli wrestles Nebraska's Isaiah White at 165 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hawkeyes dropped one on a third-period takedown. At 197, Jacob Warner lost to Eric Schultz, 3-1, after Schultz scored on a re-shot with 10 seconds left. Warner beat Schultz twice last year — in the dual, and at the 2018 Big Ten Championships. Iowa’s only other loss came at 141, where Chad Red scored two first-period takedowns in a 6-2 win over Max Murin. 

That ‘keep-it-close’ strategy Brands alluded to did not work on the other half of the team, or at least not as well. Lee rolled up his sixth technical fall of the year, during which he scored all 18 points in about 86 seconds. He scored a takedown midway through the first period, then rolled up four turns over the next minute to give Iowa a 5-0 lead.

“It’s all about scoring points, no matter how much time is left on the clock,” Lee said. “I don’t care how much time is left. If there’s 10 seconds on the clock, I’ve got time on the turn. If there’s three seconds left, I’ve got time to turn, or get a takedown, an escape, whatever.

“It’s just scoring points the whole match, as hard as you can, as fast as you can. Score hard, score fast, score a lot.”

After Lee, Austin DeSanto scored three takedowns in a 7-4 win over Ridge Lovett at 133. Pat Lugo scored one in a 4-1 win over Collin Purinton at 149. Tony Cassioppi closed with two takedowns in a 6-1 win over Christian Lance at heavyweight.

Perhaps exercising that toughness will prepare these Hawkeyes for the slate ahead. January was always going to be an exciting month, both for Iowa and the wrestling world at large. The next two duals are a chance to flash the kind the talent these Hawkeyes possess on a larger stage against larger, more competitive opponents.

Saturday night was the first test. They passed. It only gets tougher from here.

“I don’t think these guys are the No. 1-team in America and they’ve crowned themselves as champions,” Brands said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think they think they’re all that. I don’t think that.

“This is January 18th. We’re going to March 21. We’re building. We’re working.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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No. 1 Iowa 26, No. 10 Nebraska 6

  • 125: No. 1 Spencer Lee (IA) tech. fall Alex Thomsen (NEB), 18-0
  • 133: No. 2 Austin DeSanto (IA) dec. No. 12 Ridge Lovett (NEB), 7-4
  • 141: No. 9 Chad Red Jr. (NEB) dec. No. 3 Max Murin (IA), 6-2
  • 149: No. 1 Pat Lugo (IA) dec. No. 18 Collin Purinton (NEB), 4-1
  • 157: No. 4 Kaleb Young (IA) dec. No. 19 Peyton Robb (NEB), 6-4
  • 165: No. 2 Alex Marinelli (IA) dec. No. 5 Isaiah White (NEB), 4-3
  • 174: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (IA) dec. No. 6 Mikey Labriola (NEB), 3-1
  • 184: No. 9 Abe Assad (IA) dec. No. 5 Taylor Venz (NEB), 6-4
  • 197: No. 15 Eric Schultz (NEB) dec. No. 4 Jacob Warner (IA), 3-1
  • 285: No. 3 Tony Cassioppi (IA) dec. No. 16 Christian Lance (NEB), 6-1

Rankings from Trackwrestling.