‘Little things, big difference’: Close matches cost Iowa wrestling against No. 1 Penn State
IOWA CITY — After this knock-down, drag-out fight … after this two-hour brawl in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd … after the Iowa wrestling team lost its first dual meet in more than two years, Tom Brands’ first words were … optimistic?
“Fortunately,” the Hawkeyes’ head coach said after a 19-13 loss to top-ranked Penn State on Friday night, “it’s January still, even though we’re this close to February,” and he emphasized "this close" by making the small gesture with his right hand.
“We’re getting to the end,” Brands continued. “We have to do a better job. We know that little things make a big difference.”
Maybe optimistic urgency is a better way to describe his tone. But Friday's defeat — the first for Iowa since losing 27-12 to Oklahoma State on February 24, 2019 — was another reminder of how close matches can be the difference in big-time competitions.
There were many twists and turns that ultimately led to Penn State’s win.
The Nittany Lions, now 14-0 this year and 6-0 against the Big Ten, won the first three matches for a 10-0 lead. Iowa, now 11-1 and 5-1, tied it at 10-all with four matches to go. Penn State then won three in a row to seal its 25th straight dual victory.
The nuts-and-bolts of it looked like this: Penn State won six matches while Iowa won four. Penn State scored 10 total takedowns while Iowa scored eight. Penn State put up 41 total match points while Iowa put up 36. These two teams are a lot closer than even the six-point difference from Friday night's final score.
But the common trend that lifted the Nittany Lions on this night was winning the close matches. Four of Friday’s bouts were decided by two points or fewer, including two that went into overtime. Penn State won three, including both overtime matches.
In each of those matches, Iowa wrestlers were "this close" to scoring points that would’ve made huge differences.
At 133 pounds, Austin DeSanto shot in on Roman Bravo-Young’s legs seven times throughout the match — four times in the first period, twice in the second, once in the third — but failed to finish any of those shots. Bravo-Young, meanwhile, converted one of his few shots for a takedown in the second period and won, 3-2.
“There is a ferocious pace, and then there’s a little bit of a let-up in the third period,” Brands said of DeSanto's match. “You got a stall call on the guy. You got another stall call and a point on the guy. There’s 40 seconds left, and we’re holding.
“That’s un-DeSanto-like. He spends a lot of energy in his wrestling. … We had his back against the wall, and then we let him off the wall.”
At 141, in an NCAA finals rematch between Jaydin Eierman and Nick Lee, Eierman used a big over-hook throw in the second period to take Lee to his back, but Lee rolled through and ultimately scored a takedown for a 2-1 lead. He scored another on the edge at the end of the period for a 4-2 lead.
Eierman scored on a go-behind with 12 seconds left in the match to tie it at 4-4, and he rode out Lee to erase riding-time and force overtime. But a sluggish shot at the beginning of sudden victory allowed Lee to scored a takedown for a 6-4 win.
“They, for the most part, got tough and we won some close matches,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said afterward. “Obviously that’s a really good team. Any time you can beat Iowa in a dual, that’s obviously a good thing.”
Then came the match at 174 pounds — between No. 1 Carter Starocci and No. 2 Michael Kemerer, another NCAA finals rematch — which was perhaps the weirdest one of the night. Starocci prevailed, 2-1, in the overtime rideout tiebreaker.
The match included: stellar defense from Kemerer early; a failed challenge by Brands; the ref awarding Kemerer two at the end of sudden victory but then taking it away after a review showed that time had run out before the two was awarded; the ref awarding a point to Kemerer on a stall call against Starocci but then also taking it away; and …
… well, that match was an odd one all around.
“That was a weird match,” Sanderson said. “I need to go back and watch that again.”
“Here’s the thing,” Brands added, “Kemerer is in, at least twice. We’re pretty good there. We’re going to have opportunities in the future there as well. We just have to get better at finishing.
“The thing about Kemerer is he gets better every time out. … He stayed in there. We just have to be a little bit sharper on our finishes. That’s the biggest thing.”
This theme of losing close matches is now two weeks old for the Hawkeyes, at least this season. In their 21-12 win over Ohio State last week, five matches were decided by two points or fewer. Iowa went 1-4 in those matches. Until Tony Cassioppi’s major decision, Iowa never led by more than five points the entire way in Columbus.
On Friday night, those close losses ensured that Iowa never led at all against mighty Penn State.
The losses by DeSanto and Eierman, followed Drew Hildebrandt's 9-0 major decision over Jesse Ybarra at 125 pounds, gave Penn State a 10-0 lead after the first three weights. Wins from Max Murin (149), Kaleb Young (157) and a major decision from Alex Marinelli at 165 pounds tied the dual at 10-10 with four to go.
Starocci’s win over Kemerer, weird as it was, gave Penn State a 13-10 lead. It never trailed again.
Aaron Brooks and Max Dean beat Abe Assad and Jacob Warner, respectively, at 184 and 197 to clinch the dual. Dean scored eight unanswered in the third period to turn a 3-0 Warner lead into an 8-3 win. (Cassioppi did end the dual on a sneaky high note, a 7-2 win over Greg Kerkvliet, which will significantly help his postseason positioning.)
After a while, Kemerer returned to the Carver floor after his loss. Marinelli met him by Iowa’s bench. Marinelli won 10-2 over Brady Berge at 165 — a strong rebound after he lost his first match of the season last week, 3-2 to Ohio State’s Carson Kharchla.
Marinelli and Kemerer talked briefly in that moment, about missed opportunities but also how the future will bring more. February has its own challenges — No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Nebraska — but the Big Ten Championships are just 35 days away.
Marinelli said he and Kemerer and the rest of the Iowa wrestling team will be ready. They know that the little things will make a big difference.
“Good thing we’re in the Big Ten, right?” Marinelli said he told Kemerer in that moment. “We’re going to get them again. Same thing for me last week. We’re going to get them again.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
No. 1 Penn State 19, No. 3 Iowa 13
- 125: #7 Drew Hildebrandt (PSU) maj. dec. Jesse Ybarra (IA), 9-0
- 133: #1 Roman Bravo-Young (PSU) dec. #3 Austin DeSanto (IA), 3-2
- 141: #1 Nick Lee (PSU) dec. #2 Jaydin Eierman (IA), 6-4 (SV)
- 149: #10 Max Murin (IA) dec. #19 Beau Bartlett (PSU), 4-1
- 157: #12 Kaleb Young (IA) dec. Terrell Barraclough (PSU), 2-0
- 165: #5 Alex Marinelli (IA) maj. dec. #11 Brady Berge (PSU), 10-2
- 174: #1 Carter Starocci (PSU) dec. #2 Michael Kemerer (IA), 2-1 (TB1)
- 184: #1 Aaron Brooks (PSU) dec. #17 Abe Assad (IA), 8-3
- 197: #2 Max Dean (PSU) dec. #4 Jacob Warner (IA), 8-3
- 285: #5 Tony Cassioppi (IA) dec. #3 Greg Kerkvliet (PSU), 7-2