If there is one word to describe the No. 1 team in the country so far this year, that word would be dominance. In the last decade, more often than not, that No. 1 team label and that adjective have been associated with one team and one team only, Penn State. This year, however, it's Penn State's latest opponent that has that claim to fame.
The defending champion Nittany Lions come into their next dual as the No. 2 team in the country and will face the dominant Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that has steamrolled past every opponent its faced this year and broken the scoring record at the prestigious Midlands tournament. It's not often that Penn State is the underdog, but this is one of those duals. Increasing the intensity is the fact that this dual is held in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and is expected to be sold out and filled to capacity. Iowa fans show up, and they certainly show up when they think their team is about to beat the winningest team of the last decade. This one will be loud, intense, gritty and emotional, and it will be all be broadcasted live on the Big Ten Network this Friday at 9 p.m. ET. Here's what to expect at each weight when these two teams battle in Iowa City.
125 pounds: No. 1 Spencer Lee vs. Brandon Meredith
If Penn State's top guys perform at their best and pull off an upset or two (or three or four), this dual could be close, but 125 pounds will likely be an early morale buster for the Nittany Lions. Penn State's new 125-pound starter Brandon Meredith has been a solid performer at a weight class that has been a weak spot as of late for Sanderson and Co., but he's still a freshman and still feeling out the Big Ten experience. At 12-8, Meredith is a tough battler against mid-range competitors, but his next opponent is on a different level.
Two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee has been a leader for this No. 1 Iowa team in more ways than one, and the points that he puts up in the first few minutes of a dual have a way of exciting his team and inspiring greatness from his fellow Hawkeyes. Lee said in his press conference after the Ohio State dual that he likes to be the one to start off the duals, and it's easy to see why. With a 100% bonus rate and falls or tech falls in nine of his last ten duals, Lee is in a tier by himself at 125 pounds and will be expected to bonus Meredith quickly and send his fellow lightweight teammate Austin DeSanto to the mat with some energy
133: No. 2 Austin DeSanto vs. No. 3 Roman Bravo-Young
The Penn State-Iowa dual will feature of a number of top-ranked match-ups, but 133 pounds may be the ranked matchup with the highest pace and the most intensity. Penn State's No. 3 Roman Bravo-Young comes into the dual with a perfect 13-0 undefeated record with a 61.5% bonus rate, and he'll face Iowa's No. 2 Austin DeSanto, a fellow All-American who is 12-1 with his only loss coming against No. 1 Seth Gross at Midlands this year. DeSanto has a 69% bonus rate and has beaten Bravo-Young both times they've wrestled, but both matches were decisions.
Both of these athletes are aggressive, flashy and committed to scoring points, as shown by Bravo-Young's tough major decision against No. 13 Ridge Lovett and Austin DeSanto's 27-12 tech fall against No. 19 Jordan Decatur. As the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked wrestlers in the country, individual rankings, Big Ten tournament seeds and team points are on the line for DeSanto and Bravo-Young in this matchup, and Penn State will need a big upset here if they want a chance to stop Iowa.
141 pounds: No. 9 Max Murin or Carter Lappel vs. No. 2 Nick Lee
The 141-pound weight class is Penn State's place to shine. Two-time All-American Nick Lee has emerged not only as a veteran leader for the Nittany Lions this year at 141 pounds but also as a title contender, and if he can continue the pattern he's established so far this season of winning and winning big, he will be a key player in Penn State's plan to rise to the top of the standings once again in March. Lee finished fifth in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA tournament, but after the graduations of NCAA finalists Micah Jordan and Yianni Diakomihalis and the redshirting of Jaydin Eierman, Lee has risen to the top two of the weight. The only guy right now ranked above Lee is Luke Pletcher, a two-time All-American who previously wrestled at 133 pounds, but Lee has another two weeks before he has to face the top-ranked athlete. For now, though, the undefeated 141 pounder has twelve wins, over a 90 percent bonus right and the confidence to take on any one that Iowa sends out against him.
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Facing off against the Penn State junior will likely be Iowa's backup Carter Happel, given starter Max Murin's absence at the Ohio State dual because of an injury. Head coach Tom Brands said in his press conference after the dual that his most competitive 141-pounder was "nicked up," and while Murin was still listed as a probable, he may not be healthy enough to wrestle someone like Lee.
Murin is ranked ninth but was ranked as high as No. 3 before his loss to No. 8 Chad Red. He also won Midlands and is 10-1 with big wins against Dylan Duncan of Illinois, Doug Zapf of Penn, Josh Heil of Campbell, Shakur Laney of Ohio and Tristan Moran of Wisconsin. Happel, on the other hand, is 6-4 and competitive, but recently took a tough major decision loss to Luke Pletcher. Like most University of Iowa wrestlers, Happel is a battler, and he's pushed national qualifiers Ian Parker and Josh Heil into overtime before eventually dropping the matches. Iowa's best chance to win comes with Murin in the starting lineup, and while Happel will put up a fight, he will likely struggle against an athlete at Lee's caliber. After the dual against Ohio State, Tom Brands said that "if Happel believes" he could have pushed No. 1 Pletcher, suggesting the Iowa's head coach has no hesitation with sending out his 141-pound backup. Sometimes all it takes is a coach's belief.
149 No. 3 Pat Lugo vs. Jarod Verkleeren OR Luke Gardner
Last weekend, Iowa has two No. 1 ranked wrestlers in the lineup, with two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee and then-undefeated 2019 All-American Pat Lugo. Iowa's 149-pound senior Lugo is having one of the best seasons of his career, having won Midlands and beaten athletes like No. 7 Jarrett Degen, No. 13 Colin Martin, No. 14 Collin Purinton, No. 4 Austin O'Connor and No. 12 Max Thomsen. His drop, however, from No. 1 to No. 3 came after a loss to Ohio State freshman Sammy Sasso last weekend in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in overtime. Lugo doesn't want a loss like that to happen again. Not on his turf.
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Penn State has two potential athletes on the list of probables that could take on Lugo and look for another upset against the No. 3 Hawkeye, and both come into the dual with solid records. The likely starter, Jarod Verkleeren is 12-3 on the year, and his only losses are a pin against No. 14 Collin Purinton, Jimmy Hoffman, and national qualifier Josh Maruca, all solid starters. The pin against Purinton turned some heads and could cause concern the Nittany Lions fans given that Lugo has a win over the same opponent, but Friday is a new day. Verkleeren is enjoying his first year as a starter for Penn State and the opportunity to compete in duals like this are part of the reason why being a Big Ten starter is special. Lugo's resume gives him the advantage over the young Nittany Lion, and he'll have an even bigger advantage if he faces backup Luke Gardner who is 6-1, but neither of these Penn State wrestlers are easy opponents. Both want wins, and both have proven that they will compete for seven minutes. This should be Lugo's match, but when Penn State and Iowa wrestle, nothing is guaranteed, and Penn State will be looking to come into Carver and do to Lugo exactly what Sammy Sasso did last weekend.
157 No. 5 Kaleb Young vs. Brady Berge OR- Bo Pipher
The 157 pound weight class is one of the more odd weight classes of the dual. Iowa is expected to start All-American Kaleb Young, and assuming he wrestles Penn State backup Bo Pipher, Young should be comfortable wrestling for at least a decision. Penn State starter and national qualifier Brady Berge would push Young a little bit more, but it's unlikely that the sophomore will take the mat as the Junior World Team member has only wrestled one match since his return. Berge did beat Josh Humphreys of Lehigh in his only competition so far this year, so he's 1-0 but has not had enough mat time to pencil him in as the likely starter and a guy to stop the Iowa All-American.
The Brady Berge situation as thrown Bo Pipher into the spotlight, and despite having a losing record at 8-9, Pipher is a fighter. As part of the Big Ten schedule, Pipher has faced high level competition, including No. 1 Ryan Deakin, an athlete who he refused to allow to score bonus points against him. Now he'll take on Iowa's All-American Kaleb Young for his first test in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Penn State needs Pipher to avoid giving up bonus points if they want to stay in the fight, and this is a reasonable request for the new Nittany Lion starter, even against a guy like Young.
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Iowa' starter has already beaten No. 7 Kendall Coleman, No. 16 Peyton Robb, No. 13 Markus Hartman and No. 3 David Carr along with seven others, and he's taken just two losses, both against top-5 opponents. Young's a tough matchup for anyone, but Bo Pipher has already wrestled the best in the weight class. He's may not pull off the upset, but he just needs to hang on and stay in the match to give his team some hope.
165 No. 2 Alex Marinelli vs. No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph
There are two matches in this dual that could be NCAA finals matches in particular, but Iowa head coach Tom Brands doesn't see it that way: "Our fans our looking at two matches where you have [Mark] Hall and [Michael] Kemerer and you have [Alex] Marinelli and [Vincenzo] Joseph, and that would be doing a disservice to every other weight class," he said in the presser on January 28. For Tom Brands, every dual could be a finals dual, and he's prepared his guys to wrestle like this is the national finals.
The battle between Marinelli and Joseph, however, will likely still be considered the biggest match of the night. Joseph has two national titles, but he's never beat Marinelli. On the other hand, Marinelli has no national titles, but he's never lost to Joseph. Both are undefeated on the year. The winner will continue on a campaign to be a Hodge Trophy finalist. The loser will look for revenge in March. This is what wrestling fans live for.
Looking at statistics, Marinelli is 14-0 on the year with twice as many wins as Joseph, and he'll wrestle in his home gym with his fans behind him. If he wins in Carver-Hawkeye, he'll be the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the nation and he'll have a target on his back for the rest of the year. Joseph does have a slightly higher bonus rate at 57.14% and he's pinned three of his last four opponents, but Marinelli has an impressive pin record as well. The Hawkeye All-American won the Champion of Champions award at Midlands and scored more points than any athlete in the tournament, pinned six athletes on his way to a title at the tournament. The outcome of this match is nearly impossible to predict, but it's safe to say that a pin from either guy is unlikely, given the caliber of both athletes.
Marinelli beat Joseph 9-6 and 9-3 in their last two meetings, the first one coming in the Iowa-Penn State dual in 2018 and the second one coming in last year's Big Ten tournament. At the same Big Ten tournament, Marinelli captured the gold, but went on to finish seventh at the national tournament while Joseph took second.
Tom Brands said to respect every match, but put an extra bright spotlight on 165 pounds.
174 No. 2 Michael Kemerer vs. No. 1 Mark Hall
Just like 165 pounds, 174 pounds is a battle between No. 1 and No. 2, a battle between a two-time All-American and a national champ and a battle between two undefeated wrestlers.
Unlike at 165 pounds where the Iowa wrestler has double the wins of his Penn State opponent, this time it's the Penn State wrestler with more wins, as Mark Hall comes into the dual with a 16-0 record and an 81% bonus rate. Competing against the 2017 NCAA champion is Iowa's two-time All-American Michael Kemerer, an athlete who has been on fire this year, both as a leader for his team and as a point-scorer in critical matches. Kemerer holds an 8-0 record with three of his wins coming against top-seven wrestlers in Kaleb Romero, Mikey Labriola and Dylan Lydy. This list is impressive, but Hall one-upped his opponent by pinning Labriola last weekend to win the dal against Nebraska and adding huge momentum to the Penn State bench. These two athletes have never met in college, and Hall will be under more pressure in this battle.
As the No. 1-ranked athlete in the country and an Iowa foe, Carver-Hawkeye is a dangerous place for Mark Hall. He's lost his top-spot in this arena before, and his team needs him to avoid letting this kind of an upset happen again. Depending on the order of the dual and the results of the 165 pounds, momentum could be going either way heading into this battle, but regardless, team points, Hodge opportunities and postseason seeds are going to be on the line in this matchup, and while Hall has the advantage on paper, Kemerer has Carver and the Iowa bench behind him.
184 No. 6 Abe Assad vs. No. 9 Aaron Brooks
In the battle of true freshman, Iowa once again has the advantage with No. 6 Abe Assad, a young star who earned his starting spot after finishing second at Midlands and winning his first four duals. Assad is 19-3 on the year with his only losses coming against No. 4 Taylor Lujan, Julien Broderson and Kendrick Jones, with those last two both coming early in the season at the Grand Valley View Open and Lindenwood Open as Assad started to feel out college wrestling. Head coach Tom Brands has been clear that his confidence in the freshman is high, and he expects Assad to make a run to the national finals.
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Yet Assad isn't the only freshman who will take the mat at 184 pounds inspired by his coach's belief in him. Penn State's 184-pounder Aaron Brooks had his redshirt pulled slightly earlier in the season than Assad. Brooks is 9-1 on the year with his only loss coming last weekend against Nebraska's All-American Taylor Venz. Assad has the advantage against this common opponent, as he beat Venz 6-4 two weeks ago.
Before the Venz loss however, Brooks may have been considered the favorite in this dual, though their high school records are so similar that if Brooks did have the edge, that advantage would only be by the slimmest margins. Both athletes were new to the starting scene, but Brooks did take a greyshirt season last year, giving him just one more year to develop. Both guys had impressive high school resumes with Assad winning two Illinois state titles, Brooks winning four Maryland state titles and both of them competing on world teams at the Cadet and junior levels. This will be a fun match to watch and the two freshman could have a major impact on the team score. They won't be the only two freshman competing for the team win though, as heavyweights Tony Cassioppi and Seth Nevills also set up a fun potential finale to this No. 1 vs. No. 2 team battle.
197 No. 7 Jacob Warner vs. No. 18 Shakur Rasheed
We've asked this question before, and we may be asking it all the way through the season, but the question of how well Shakur Rasheed performs under pressure will have a major impact on the potential of this Penn State team in March. After a major ACL injury last spring, All-American Rasheed is back in the lineup and back at the same weight that he made the podium at in 2018. The senior had an early exit in last year's tournament, but much of that could have been the result of his injury. Since his return, Rasheed is 2-2 with losses to Nebraska's Eric Schultz and Northwestern's Lucas Davison. Iowa's Jacob Warner will be the toughest wrestler he's faced all year, and the two athletes have never wrested each other in college. A win here would slid Rasheed up several spots in the national rankings and could be critical for a team win. A loss to Warner wouldn't be unexpected, and if Penn State pulls off upsets at 133, 184 and 284 and wins 165 and 174, Rasheed could still drop this match, but a win here for the Nittany Lions takes some pressure off the Blue and White in their quest to stop the No. 1 team in the country.
Jacob Warner, for his part, has had an interesting season. The sophomore All-American is 10-3 on the year with losses to Schultz, Patrick Brucki and Jay Aiello, but he also has big wins over Christian Brunner and Brucki. Warner did not wrestle against Ohio State, a decision that Tom Brands said was "the best thing for him." Praised by his coach as a "professional," Warner's loss to Schultz was unexpected, but after being replaced in the dual against the Buckeyes by teammate Cash Wilcke, Brands expects Warner to be back in the lineup and picking up an important win in this matchup.
285 No. 3 Tony Cassioppi vs. No. 15 Seth Nevills
If the dual starts at 125 pounds and Penn State pulls off a few upsets, the dual could come down to these two freshman. No. 3 Tony Cassioppi has been the man for Iowa all year, and the freshman heavyweight has wrestled with joy and fearlessness every time he steps on the mat. With a 13-0 record and a undefeated streak in his home arena, Cassioppi will be able to walk to to the mat with the confidence that he can hold down his team's potential lead and put points on the board.
Facing off against Cassioppi, however, is Penn State's closer: freshman Seth Nevills. Against Illinois and again against Nebraska, Nevills had the team win riding on his success and, under the bright lights on Rec Hall and with the Nittany Lions faithful cheering him on, he elevated Penn State to big wins against competitive opponents. Now Nevills has his biggest test of the year. Tony Cassioppi in Carver-Hawkeye will be a great challenge before the freshman, and Penn State will be doing everything the team can to put points on the board before their young heavyweight takes the mat. It's never wise to expect a man named Nevills to lose a match for Penn State, but this is not the dual to be relying on an upset finish at the end.