Why Jacob Warner’s mindset is key for the Iowa wrestling team to beat No. 1 Penn State

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Jacob Warner is telling a story from two years ago, the last time the Iowa wrestling team wrestled Penn State. It's an important story, one the rest of the Hawkeyes should learn from if they want to knock off the top-ranked Nittany Lions on Friday night.

That night, January 31, 2020, the Hawkeyes rallied to win a wild, thrilling, intense dual over Penn State before a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The story Warner is sharing is from one of the key matches that night, Michael Kemerer’s 11-6 win over then-No. 1-ranked Mark Hall at 174 pounds, a crucial decision that lifted Iowa to a 19-17 victory.

But as he begins, Warner chuckles.

“I actually have never watched the match,” Warner says. “I have seen the highlight of Kemerer taking him down at the end.”

Kemerer, standing in the Iowa media room with Warner, starts laughing.

“That’s so disrespectful,” he says with a smile. “I can’t believe it.”

The rest of the story Warner shares offers a window into his own mindset and explains why learning from that January night is important to winning on Friday. The dual begins at 8 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and will be broadcast live on Big Ten Network.

Iowa wrestler Jacob Warner, a two-time All-American at 197 pounds, will wrestle second-ranked Max Dean on Friday night.

► MORE: How to watch and follow Iowa vs. Penn State on Friday night

“I got ready in the wrestling room and came down to get ready for my match,” Warner recalls, “and (Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands) got in front of me and was like, ‘No, you’re not coming out here.’ 

“He took me, (Abe Assad) and (Tony Cassioppi) into a back room so we could focus on ourselves and not get involved with the dual.”

Warner never saw that match — honestly, he should rewatch it; Kemerer rolled through a big Mark Hall throw, led 5-4 after the first period, then scored two more takedowns to ice it — but he remembers hearing it while warming up underneath Carver.

“I could hear the fans, and it sounded like a train was coming through Carver,” Warner says. “There was a clock, so I knew how much time was left in the match, but I didn’t know the score or anything else about it.

“The clock hit zero in the third period and I asked Sammy Brooks, ‘Hey, it’s kind of loud out there, what’s going on?’ Brooks went out, came back and was like, ‘Kemerer just put the hammer down and beat Mark Hall.’”

Kemerer’s big win brought Iowa within 14-13. Penn State won at 184 to extend its lead to 17-13, then Warner scored a quick first-period takedown against Shakur Rasheed and added a riding-time point for a 4-2 win at 197. That set the stage for Tony Cassioppi to win the dual outright at 285 (he did, 7-0 over Seth Nevills).

But Warner felt more ready for his match that night, he explains, because of Brands’ intervention. It allowed him to focus more on his own match rather than the entire dual.

“I didn’t know what was going on, which was good, because I could focus on myself,” Warner says. “I didn’t know the team score going into (his match). I just knew I needed to win. I didn’t know that if I would’ve lost that match, we would’ve lost the dual. 

“When you can go out there and turn the blinders on and take out that extra stuff, that’s the best case.”

► MORE: Wrestling Mailbag: Iowa-Penn State, Iowa girls wrestling, and more

That’s what Iowa’s entire team will need to do in order to win this Friday.

On paper, Penn State is favored in seven of the 10 matches, at least using InterMat’s latest Division I rankings. The Nittany Lions are 13-0 this season and 5-0 against the Big Ten, including last weekend’s 29-6 romp over No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor. They’ve won 24 in a row, a streak that began after Iowa beat them in that 2020 dual.

“These dual meets are a lot of fun,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said this week. “You go in and wrestle other teams around the conference and around the nation. You see kids that you’ve got to beat if you want to be a national champion down the road.

“That’s exciting. We’re just competing. It’s important to see where you’re at and then continue to improve. We know Iowa is really good at showing you what you need to improve on.”

Four of Friday’s probable matches are rematches. Penn State previously won all four: Nick Lee and Carter Starocci beat Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer, respectively, in last year’s NCAA finals; Aaron Brooks beat Abe Assad, 7-3, in that 2020 dual; and Roman Bravo-Young beat Austin DeSanto in last year’s Big Ten finals.

That’s a tall mountain to climb, but Iowa is plenty capable of rising to the challenge.

Because Eierman has previously beaten Lee twice, and Kemerer beat Starocci in the Big Ten finals, and while Bravo-Young has beaten DeSanto three times in a row, the all-time series is just 3-2. The Hawkeyes are also favored at 157 and 165, and Tony Cassioppi has a win over Penn State heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet, 9-0 last year.

“The bottom line is, when it’s your time to step on the mat, be ready, be smart and make things go your way,” Brands said. “That’s a funny thing to say, but it’s really that simple.

“It’s difficult to impose your will on an opponent, but that’s what it comes down to," he continued. "It’s you or the other guy. That’s what’s great about this sport.”

Iowa's Jacob Warner, right, reacts as Kaleb Young wrestles Minnesota's Brayton Lee at 157 pounds on Jan. 7 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

► MORE: Weight-by-weight breakdown of Friday's Iowa-Penn State wrestling dual

Warner has a history of rising to these challenges.

In December 2018, Warner muscled out a 5-4 win over Willie Miklus, a four-time All-American, to help Iowa beat Iowa State, 19-18. Later that season, his 4-1 win over Eric Schultz helped Iowa rally from down 10-6 to beat Nebraska, 20-13. Earlier this season, his 3-2 win over Isaac Trumble was critical in Iowa’s 19-15 win over N.C. State.

Warner’s win over Rasheed in January 2020 ranks right up there. He could perhaps have another top-tier Carver moment on Friday when he takes on second-ranked Max Dean at 197 pounds. It’s not unreasonable to think this dual could unfold in a way where that particular matchup could be extra-crucial in deciding the final result.

“Big match coming up for him,” Brands said. “We’re glad he’s on our team.”

Because, Brands added, he knows Warner will be ready.

“It’s not just wrestling for myself, it’s wrestling for my team,” Warner says. “That’s the biggest thing. I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to go to the side of the bench and look at my guys and say, ‘I let you guys down.’

“I want to let them know I did my part in helping this team win. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. We all have our job, and we just have to go out there and execute.”

Big Ten Network to air documentary on Iowa's Tom and Terry Brands

Following Friday night's Iowa-Penn State dual, Big Ten Network will debut its brand new wrestling documentary, "The B1G Story: The Brands Brothers," which shares the story of Iowa wrestling coaches Tom and Terry Brands. It is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. CST.

The documentary chronicles the wrestling story of Tom and Terry Brands, from their upbringing and wrestling beginnings in Sheldon, Iowa, to their tremendous careers as Iowa Hawkeye wrestlers, to their Olympic pursuits in 1996 and 2000, to their ongoing coaching stints at Iowa.

BTN talked with both Tom and Terry Brands, their wives, Dan Gable, Oklahoma State coach John Smith, Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, former Des Moines Register writer Andy Hamilton and many, many more about the Brands' polarizing careers, as athletes and coaches, and their impact on the sport of wrestling.

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