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Shannon Scovel | January 30, 2022

5 takeaways from No. 1 Penn State wrestling's 19-13 win over No. 2 Iowa

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

In one of the most highly anticipated wrestling duals of the year, No. 1 Penn State topped No. 2 Iowa 19-13 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, reversing a result from two years ago and proving that the Nittany Lions are the best team in the country.

This match offered a preview into what to expect from these two teams in March. Here are the five biggest takeaways from the wild rivalry match in Iowa City. 

1. Iowa's lightweight situation continues to be a story

The last time Penn State and Iowa wrestled a dual meet, the Hawks led off with NCAA champion Spencer Lee, who teched Penn State's Brandon Meredith in the second period and put up a dominant five team points to jumpstart his Hawkeye team. This year, the Hawkeyes have had a rotating cast of lightweights, starting with Jesse Ybarra, who filled in before Lee ultimately made his return in December. Lee then pulled out for the season and opted to undergo ACL surgery, leading Iowa to slot in true freshman Drake Ayala at 125 pounds. The expected test between Ayala and Penn State's Drew Hildebrandt didn't happen on Friday night, as Iowa sent out Jesse Ybarra instead due to a reported injury to Ayala. 

STATE OF THE WEIGHT: A complete breakdown of the 2022 title contenders at 125 pounds

Ybarra took a 9-0 major decision loss to Hildebrandt that didn't reveal much new about either wrestler except that Hildebrandt can ride and is looking much like the fourth-place finisher that he was last year, if not maybe even a little better than that version of himself. Hildebrandt held No. 1 Nick Suriano to a 2-1 decision last week, and he's wrestling smart. The question will be: can Ayala come back in time for Big Tens and get his shot at Hildebrandt and the rest of this deep field at 125 pounds, or is Ybarra the guy now at the lightest weight? If the latter is true, Ybarra needs to make some serious adjustments to compete with someone like Hildebrandt. The young Hawkeye is a skilled wrestler, no doubt, but he didn't have enough in the tank to score against the Nittany Lion, and his record so far suggests that he'd need to pull off some upsets at the Big Ten tournament to secure a NCAA qualifying spot.

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK Drew Hildebrandt and Jesse Ybarra Penn State's Drew Hildebrandt takes down Jesse Ybarra in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to help Penn State to a team victory over Iowa.

Ayala, on the other hand, is 13-4 on the year, with three of his losses coming against Pat McKee of Minnesota and one of them coming against Malik Heinselman of Ohio State. McKee finished third in last year's NCAA tournament while Heinselman fell in the Round of 16, and Ayala is currently ranked No. 11 in the country, putting him in that Round of 16 or Blood Round tier right now. The young star attacks relentlessly on the mat and wrestles a brutal pace. His technique has been improving every week, and he's gaining experience competing on this level with every elite match he takes. Iowa was missing Ayala on Friday night, mostly to see, again, where he stacks up against All-American competition. Ayala has a shot at the podium if he's healthy — Iowa is used to scoring points at 125 pounds, and they'll need to do that in order to compete for a team title in March. 

2. Bonus points will be the deciding factor in March

This is not a new revelation. Of course the team that scores more points will win. But, this year, in a team race that could come down to one weight, or one match, every point matters. Penn State knew this coming into the dual, and Iowa knew this walking on to the mat in their home gym. Bonus points have defined these two programs, and while this dual featured just two major decisions and eight decisions, the national tournament could be a different game. Friday night showed where those points could come from in March. 

In the first match of the night at 125 pounds, Drew Hildebrandt of Penn State, as previously mentioned, set the tone with his 9-0 win, the only bonus point victory for the Nittany Lion, and his expression after the match said it all: that extra point for the major could be the difference in the dual. Bravo-Young, Lee and Starocci all won by one point in regulation or two points in overtime for Penn State while Dean and Brooks earned 8-3 decisions.

Brooks, in particular, had the opportunity to widen the gap against Abe Assad by major, but the Hawkeye kept him within the seven-point decision criteria, preventing bonus. This dominant Penn State squad, the same one that ran past Michigan 29-6, had to earn every single one of their wins on Friday night in a full-seven minute battle each time.  

NITTANY LIONS IN ANN ARBOR: Here's how Penn State topped Michigan in dominant fashion

Penn State may have only had one bonus win all night, but Iowa ended the battle with the same stat. Max Murin, Kaleb Young, and Tony Cassioppi all won by decisions while Alex Marinelli neutralized the bonus point advantage that Hildebrandt racked up for Penn State with a major of his own. The Bull scored a hard-fought 10-2 win against a competitive Brady Berge at 165 pounds, and he showed the wrestling world that he too is back to a national-championship caliber style. Marinelli led both teams in takedowns as an individual, but Penn State notched more offensive points than Iowa across the ten weights. 

In fact, Cody Goodwin of the Des Moines Register did the math and noted that Penn State scored 10 takedowns to Iowa's eight and scored 41 team points to Iowa's 36. Those numbers are close, though. If Jacob Warner holds off Max Dean in the last 30 seconds of the third period and refused to give up the takedown and back points, that's a six-point team point swing. If Terrell Barraclough finishes one of his attacks on Kaleb Young, that's another six-point swing. You could play this out for any of the 10 weights. What if DeSanto forced another stall call on Bravo-Young? What if Brooks accelerated his pace and fought for the bonus against Assad? Any of these scenarios — all of which had the potential of happening — would have altered the course of the dual, but these fanbases watch and wonder every time their athletes step on the mat because that's what keeps this rivalry and team race exciting. 

This dual was about the little moments, the last-second short-time efforts, riding time and sudden victory wins. On Friday, Penn State won their little moments and looked sharp doing it. Maintaining that consistency through the next eight weeks will be the next challenge for the Nittany Lions. Whichever team wins in March will likely need more than one guy racking up bonus, but on Friday, Hildebrandt's major and the five other wins elevated the Lions by just enough to work past Iowa. 

3. Defending champs continue to find a way to win close matches

Speaking of little moments, few wrestlers were able to capitalize on those opportunities better than Penn State's returning national champions. Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee, the 2021 NCAA champs at 133 pounds and 141pounds had their hands full on Friday night fending off efforts from Iowa's Austin DeSanto and Jaydin Eierman, but the No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions held steady. 

PENN STATE CHAMPS: Nick Lee | Roman Bravo-Young | Carter Starocci | Aaron Brooks

Bravo-Young, following Hildebrandt in the lineup, wrestled with his typical calm composure, a valuable trait that Tom Brands addressed in the press conference when commenting on DeSanto's loss to the Nittany Lion. He causally fended off the constant attacks from DeSanto, who came out firing, and he worked to slow down the pace of the match to his liking. His defensive attempts to prevent DeSanto from scoring led to the Nittany Lion being called for stalling, but, again, the veteran Bravo-Young was unbothered. He moved into the second period scoreless, accepted DeSanto's escape early in the period and wrestled controlled, even trailing by one, before hitting his move. After being called for stalling a second time, Bravo-Young finally picked his spot and went in for the takedown, the move that would prove to be the difference in this match. His escape in the third period gave him the 3-2 win in Carver, and while DeSanto will be back with that same energy, it's tough to get past a wrestler who stays so unaffected by this aggression and so relaxed in such a high-pressure situation. 

Nick Lee has a similar mindset. Raised in a military household, Lee explained on the Let's Go State podcast that his wrestling discipline has been one of his strongest attributes as a leader for the Nittany Lions, and he wrestles anyone, particularly someone as funky as Jaydin Eierman, tough. He, like Bravo-Young, picked his spots and didn't rush into any reckless takedowns. He was calculated and intellectual on the mat, even in a second-period scramble that saw Eierman take control before Lee turned things around in his favor. Lee scored two takedowns in the second period to Eierman's two escapes, but a last-ditch effort in the third period helped Eierman take the match into overtime, a position Lee had been in before with the Hawkeye. Just as you would expect from a national champion, Lee kept his composure and secured the W to hold on to his top spot. Eierman gave him a fight, but Lee dug deep and found a way to win, just like Bravo-Young did before him, and just like Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks would do after him at 174 and 184 pounds.

The 174-pound match in particular needs to be broken down further, so talk more Michael Kemerer and some of the adjustments he'll likely make before likely taking on Starocci again in March. 

4. Michael Kemerer can earn a national title this year, despite his Friday loss

Despite speculation that Iowa’s seventh-year senior Michael Kemerer’s injuries might slow him down this season or cause disruption for him on the quest for a national title, the veteran Hawkeye looks as good as ever, taking No. 1 Carter Starocci into extra time behind impeccable defensive tactics at 174 pounds. The Hawkeye lost his match on Friday night, but, in his fight, he showed that he's back on the level he was at when he beat Starocci at the Big Ten finals, and he's able to go seven minutes and more with the young star. 

BIG DAWG WINS BIG TENS: How Michael Kemerer topped Starocci for the 2021 conference title

Kemerer did not compete this season until January, and when he finally made his 2022 debut, he sported a hefty shoulder brace and two knee pads, a sign that his veteran body had gone through some wear and tear. The Hawkeyes fans, however, embraced their star with little concern about his potential. He’s a legend in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and with three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee out this year, Kemerer and his veteran teammate Alex Marinelli are two of the important leaders. Wrestling as a powerful 1-2 punch at 165 and 174-pounds, there’s a palpable energy around this part of the lineup again this year, and the results from these two guys prove it. 

Kemerer, specifically, raced out to 5-0 start this season with two falls, a tech and two decisions before meeting his NCAA finals opponent — Carter Starocci — for a rematch that played out much like the national finals. Starocci controlled the pace for most of the match, shooting in on impressive shots that might have tipped over any other wrestler. But Kemerer isn’t any wrestler. He fended off each attack and kept the score 1-1 in regulation with the points for both wrestlers coming from escapes. Starocci notched the win during a rideout tie-breaker, and he’s certainly deserving of the No. 1 ranking at the weight. If he holds off Kemerer again in the Big Ten tournament, he’ll likely be a contender for the No. 1 seed at nationals in a deep weight that also includes NCAA finalist Hayden Hiday and NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis, and that seed will matter. But the takeaway from this match isn’t how good Starocci is. That fact was known. 

Starocci beat three-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf at the 2021 Olympic Trials (in freestyle, but nevertheless the win was noteworthy), and he’s wrestling with more confidence and swagger this year than he did in the previous season. He’s young, talented, and has a reputation for being one of the hardest workers in the room. He’s an NCAA champion. 

Kemerer is looking for that last credential. He wants to stand on top of the podium in March, and he has one last shot to do it. The good news for Iowa, though, is that The KemDawg looks every bit like a national champion, and the fact that he can go with Starocci for more than seven minutes and be in that match means he’s just as likely to win as anyone in this weight, Starocci included. 

5. Athleticism defines the upperweights

Jumping ahead two weights, let's go to 197 pounds where, for seven minutes, Jacob Warner and Max Dean scrambled. They scrambled in the first period following a takedown from Warner, and they picked up where they left off in the third period, as time ticked down and Dean looked for one last move. This match was all action from whistle to whistle, and Dean ultimately prevailed because of his ability to convert his shot on the mat into back points. Dean and Warner competed like a couple of lightweights out on the mat, and maintaining this pace and technical savviness throughout the entirety of the NCAA tournament could help one of them end up on top of the podium in March.

The athletic upperweight era has slowly evolved over the last five years, and these two 197-pounders showed that skill is not limited by size.

CAN'T-MISS ACTION: The 25 most exciting college wrestlers to watch

The supreme showcase, however, wasn’t limited to just that one weight class. Up at heavyweight, the fight continued. Tony Cassioppi’s refined fitness gave him the strength to overpower Kerkvliet and upset the No. 2-ranked heavyweight in the country, earning a statement win. Last year, Cassioppi beat an injured Kerkvliet 9-0 in the Big Ten Championships, but Kerkvliet looked to be on a different level this year, topping Michigan’s Mason Parris last weekend in the dual. Against Cassioppi, a wrestler who Parris has beaten twice by fall, Kerkvliet picked up the first takedown for what looked to be a repeat of his dual against Parris. The Nittany Lion was on the attack, and he was tracking well to deliver one final blow. Cassioppi though, wrestled his match. He secured a takedown of his own and then rode out Kerkvliet for the remainder of the first period. 

Kerkvliet, a strong freestyle wrestler who recognized his struggle escaping from Cassioppi on bottom at the end of the first period, chose neutral and failed to hit another takedown, sending this match into the third period where Cassioppi turned up the heat and put an exclamation mark on his win. He escaped for an early point and then picked up the defining takedown of the match with an upper-body move that resembled an Alex Marinelli throw. This was not a push-and-shove match; this was a battle of athletic All-Americans. 

Winning the heavyweight division at the NCAA tournament is a tall task that would require someone to beat Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson, who looks absolutely unstoppable this year and just majored Parris last night. Cassioppi might have bumped himself up to No. 2 in the heavyweight standings with his win, though the rankers will have some challenges figuring out how to weight each of these results. Regardless, Steveson, at least for now, appears to be in a class of his own, but his style of wrestling — takedowns, takedowns and more takedowns — has helped push heavyweight towards a more entertaining style of wrestling that rewards speed and technique and forces athletes to compete at a pace more typically associated with the other end of the weight class spectrum.  

Tough wrestling isn't limited to any one specific weight class, and when Penn State and Iowa meet again at Big Tens, expect an equally competitive fiery battle from all 10 starters on both teams. 

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