Top-ranked Penn State wrestling has started 2019 the same way it ended 2018: by winning.
After finishing on top in the Southern Scuffle with six individual champions, the Nittany Lions opened their Big Ten schedule by rolling past Northwestern 33-8. No team has scored more than eight points in a dual against them so far this year, but the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers will attempt to break that streak Sunday.
Led by No. 3 Evan Wick, Wisconsin holds a 6-2 record and finished fourth place at Midlands. The Badgers' two losses came against No. 2 Ohio State in late December and in a recent 17-16 tiebreaker loss to No. 24 Rutgers, a match that the Badgers will need to learn from if they want a chance against Penn State.
With nine ranked wrestlers and four top-seeded wrestlers in their lineup, the Nittany Lions have the advantage in this conference dual. But here are the three things to watch when the Badgers visit Rec Hall on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET to face the 2018 NCAA champs.
125 pounds is Penn State’s only weak spot
The only unranked Penn State wrestler in the starting lineup, Devin Schnupp, has a big contest ahead of him when he faces Wisconsin’s Connor Brown, who holds a No. 15 ranking.
Schnupp has wrestled the competitive Penn State dual schedule all year, as well as the Southern Scuffle and the Keystone Classic, so he does have the experience of competing against ranked athletes. But his 8-9 record suggests that a win in the 125-pound match may be the best shot Wisconsin has of earning some points against the top-seeded team in the country. Penn State has two other 125-pound athletes on the roster — Gavin Teasdale and Brody Teske — but neither are starting this year, as head coach Cael Sanderson continues to be strategic with his lineup in preparation for March.
Brown finished fourth at Midlands after losing in the semifinals to 125-pound Midlands champ Sebastian Rivera. With a 9-3 overall season record, he’s making a name for himself in first season as Badger. He earned a win at Midland against No. 14 Travis Piotrowski and will enter the match against Schnupp fresh off a win against Rutger’s Shane Metzler on Friday.
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The 165-pound dual between No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph and No. 3 Evan Wick is the match to watch
Joseph’s resume so far this year reinforces his dominance at the 165-pound weight class, but this dual against No. 3 Wick could provide a fresh challenge for the two-time NCAA champion. Wick, a sophomore who finished third in the NCAA tournament last year, enters the dual with just one loss, a 4-3 decision to No. 2 Alex Marinelli at Midlands. He’s picked up ranked wins against No. 5 Josh Shields, No. 6 Isaiah White, No. 11 Demetrius Romero and No. 12 Bryce Steiert, building his record and preparing him for his Penn State opponent.
Joseph has not been tested against an opponent ranked as highly as Wick so far this year, but he has still been relentless with his wins, totaling eight falls, one tech fall and two major decisions in his 13 victories. He did not wrestle against Northwestern on Friday, but he’s expected to return to the lineup Sunday. Look for Joseph to come out the gates hard and fast, and be ready to watch him go to work against a fellow top 3 opponent in Wick.
Heavyweight will be a battle regardless of who starts for Penn State.
Ranked No. 4 in the county, Penn State’s Anthony Cassar finished second at the Scuffle to No. 2 Derek White of Oklahoma and is 11-1 for the year. However, both he and heavyweight teammate Nick Nevills are listed as probable starters for the Nittany Lions against Wisconsin, leaving the Badgers guessing about which accomplished wrestler will take the mat on Sunday.
Nevills, a two-time All-American who started at heavyweight for the team last year, finished third at the Southern Scuffle after losing to White in the semifinals.
Cassar, on the other hand, wrestled 197 pounds last year. He did not earn the starting spot for the Nittany Lions at the Big Ten Championship and missed out on a chance to qualify for the NCAA tournament. This year, he’s received the starting nod from Sanderson for multiple duals at 285 and could do some damage against his Big Ten opponents.
Regardless of who steps on the mat for Penn State, Cassar or Nevills, Wisconsin’s No. 9 Trent Hillger has his work cut out for him.