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Husker Wrestlers Peaking Heading Into Conference Tournament

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No. 4 Nebraska travels to New Jersey to take on Big Ten’s best

Nebraska’s coaches look on during a dual against Minnesota.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Now that the regular season is over, the No. 4-ranked Nebraska wrestling team is heading to Piscataway, NJ for the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Saturday and Sunday. The Huskers will enter the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center) with one of the Big Ten’s best squads, but they’ll need some major upsets to put themselves into contention for a conference title.

Each weight class is seeded 1-14 with each Big Ten school sending one wrestler. Nebraska has some serious depth up and down its lineup with nine of its ten wrestlers seeded seventh or better. However, the thing that hurts the Huskers in a race for a team title is that they don’t have a single frontrunner. The Big Ten is so stacked in wrestling that it legitimately boasts a favorite to win a national title at nine of the ten weight classes (all except 184 pounds, which I’ll touch on), so Nebraska’s wrestlers will need to run a gauntlet of the country’s best wrestlers in order to capture any individual conference crowns.

The tournament seeds were voted on by the conference coaches this week. Six teams boast a top-seeded wrestler (Penn State 3, Iowa 2, Ohio State 2, Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin), and the field is stacked with five wrestlers who have won a combined 6 NCAA titles. Iowa, the heavy favorite to win the conference tournament, has all ten of its wrestlers seeded in the top 3, showing why some are talking about the Hawkeyes having possibly one of the best teams ever assembled.

So, the deck is stacked against the Huskers this weekend, but a few upsets and deep runs by the Huskers could put them in contention.

NCAA Implications

A total of 283 automatic qualification spots to the NCAA Wrestling Championship have been allocated to college wrestling’s seven conferences with the Big Ten receiving the most of any conference with 79. The Big 12 received the second most with just 54, showing the strength of the Big Ten conference in wrestling. The Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (schools such as Cornell, Lehigh, Harvard, American, Army, Navy and Princeton) received 44 auto spots, while the MAC (41), ACC (35), Southern Conference (16) and the Pac-12 (14) round out the Division I conferences.

In each conference, each weight class has a specific amount of NCAA automatic qualifier allocations meaning each weight will send its best to the NCAA tournament. The number of automatic qualifiers depends on the strength of the conference at the given weight. For example, the 125-pound weight class in the Big Ten has eight NCAA allocations, meaning the top eight finishers at the weight will automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. Some weight classes receive more, while some receive less.

Nebraska has eight of its 10 wrestlers seeded in a position to nab a qualifying spot, with the other two close to the cut-off line, so it’ll be interesting to see how many Huskers earn their trip to nationals during conference weekend.

How to Watch

On Saturday, Session I will begin at 9 a.m. with Session II beginning at 5:30 p.m. Both sessions will be streamed live on BTN+ (subscription required).

On Sunday, Session III will begin at 11 a.m. and will also be streamed live on BTN+. Session IV will begin at 2:30 p.m. with a live telecast on BTN.

Weight-by-Weight Breakdown

*Big Ten Championship brackets can be found here.

125 pounds (8 NCAA allocations)

No. 10-seed Alex Thomsen (10-12)

Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

The 125-pound weight class has been Nebraska’s weakest all season. Redshirt freshman Alex Thomsen goes into the tournament with the 10-seed and will face 7th-seeded Liam Cronin of Indiana in the first round. Cronin defeated Thomsen 4-1 in dual action this season. If Thomsen finds a way past Cronin, he’ll have to face the 2-seed Devin Schroder of Purdue. Schroder defeated Thomsen 8-2 in the regular season.

Prediction: Thomsen goes 1-3 to finish in 8th place.

133 pounds (7 NCAA allocations)

No. 6-seed Ridge Lovett (14-6)

Dylan Guenther / Corn Nation

In his first year on campus Ridge Lovett has shown why he was such a highly touted recruit. The freshman rattled off six-straight wins to end the regular season after three losses in a row to the three best wrestlers in the country in consecutive duals. In his first Big Ten tournament, Lovett has the potential to make some noise and score an upset or two.

As the No. 6-seed, Lovett will take on 11-seed Boo Dryden of Minnesota. In the final dual of the season, the two were scheduled to meet but Dryden failed a skin test and was forced to forfeit to Lovett, so it’ll be the first time these two have met on the mat. If Lovett gets past Dryden, he’ll likely face 3-seed Austin Desanto of Iowa. Desanto is 14-2 and has been one of the best in the country this year, so this would be a major upset if Lovett can topple the Hawkeye. Desanto beat Lovett 7-4 in the regular season, but Lovett showed promise in the match as he rode Desanto out for the entire third period, causing the Hawkeye junior to show visible frustration. In a consolation-bracket run, I see Lovett making it to a fifth-place matchup against Illinois’ Travis Piotrowski, who Lovett has yet to face. It’ll be a tough matchup for Lovett against a senior with a 22-2 record.

Prediction: Lovett goes 3-3 and finishes in 6th place.

141 pounds (8 NCAA allocations)

No. 4-seed Chad Red Jr. (15-6)

Dylan Guenther / Corn Nation

Nobody is more exciting to watch wrestle for the Big Red than Chad Red. On the other hand, Red has also been inconsistent this season. Going against top competition this year, Red has struggled to a degree, but he’s shown with his two pins of ranked opponents (6 total pins this season) that he can beat anyone in a blink of an eye. He pinned then-No. 12 Tariq Wilson of NC State in just 33 seconds and just finished the regular season with a pinfall win over Minnesota’s No. 6 Mitch McKee, giving him wins by pinfall in his last three matches. Red is on fire, and I’m going to strike while the iron’s hot. I think Red scores a couple upsets and finds himself in the Big Ten final for a second straight year (he made the conference final as a sophomore as the 7-seed). Although I don’t think he’ll bring home the title.

Chad Red just pinned Tariq Wilson. Live:

Posted by FloWrestling on Friday, December 6, 2019

In the first round, Red will face 13-seed Eddie Bolivar of Indiana, who Red pinned in under a minute under a month ago. In the quarterfinals, Lee would likely face 5-seed Tristan Moran of Wisconsin. Moran beat Red 9-4 earlier in the season, but that was in Nebraska’s first conference dual of the season and almost no wrestler is more improved over the last month than Red. In the semifinal, Red would almost certainly face top-seeded Nick Lee of Penn State, who beat Red by major decision 9-1 earlier in the year. The two have a history, with Lee beating Red a couple times in college after Red denied Lee a high school state title as a senior. Red wasn’t himself at all this season against Lee, and I see a much different match this weekend between these two. After upsetting Lee, Red will likely face 2-seed Luke Pletcher of Ohio State in the final. Pletcher seems to seriously have Red’s number, winning two matchups this season by major decision.

Prediction: Red goes 3-1 to finish 2nd place.

149 pounds (10 NCAA allocations)

No. 7-seed Collin Purinton (13-8)

The 149-pound weight class is extremely deep, evident by the 10 NCAA allocations given to the weight class. Senior Collin Purinton limps into the conference tournament having lost three of his last four matches.

Purinton will take on 10-seed Griffin Parriott of Purdue in the first round. Purinton won their match in the regular season 13-6. With a win, Purinton will face 2-seed Pat Lugo of Iowa. Lugo beat Purinton 4-1 in the regular season, and I don’t see Purinton getting past the senior Hawkeye. In the consolation bracket, Purinton likely gets another win but the depth of the weight class will be a challenge.

Prediction: Purinton goes 2-3 to finish in 8th place.

157 pounds (6 NCAA allocations)

No. 7-seed Peyton Robb (16-5)

Dylan Guenther / Corn Nation

Redshirt freshman Peyton Robb ended his first regular season with a major rookie mistake. After declining a chance to weigh himself before his official weigh in for Nebraska’s season-ending dual against Minnesota, Robb missed weight by 0.1 pounds and wasn’t allowed to wrestle. Despite a 1-4 record against ranked competition (Robb’s lone win was an injury default over Kendall Coleman of Purdue in a match Robb was winning), Robb has been extremely competitive. Of his four losses to ranked opponents, none have come by more than two points. I really like Robb and his potential to outperform his seed and shake things up in this bracket.

In the first round, Robb will face 10-seed Jahi Jones of Maryland. The two did not meet, but I expect Robb to handle the Terrapin with an 11-6 record on the year. In the quarterfinal, Robb would then likely face 2-seed Kaleb Young. Despite wrestling Young to a close 6-4 loss this year, Robb likely falls to the Hawkeye again. I see Robb making a run through the consolation bracket all the way to the consolation finals, where I predict him losing to Coleman.

Prediction: Robb goes 4-2 to finish in 4th place.

165 pounds (8 NCAA allocations)

No. 4-seed Isaiah White (16-3)

Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

The 165-pound weight class is another where the top few wrestlers are some of the best around. Senior Isaiah White has faced and lost to the top three guys in the bracket and has yet to prove he can truly compete with the very top tier guys. After finishing the regular season with four straight wins, this weekend is his best chance to break through into title contention.

White will face 13-seed Tanner Webster in the first round, and after pinning the Boilermaker in the regular season, should win easily. In the quarterfinal, White will have a rematch with Ohio State’s Ethan Smith. In dual action, White won by pinfall with two seconds left in the match despite injuring his ankle in the first period. A healthy White should control Smith for the win. In the semifinal round, White will likely face top-seeded Vincenzo Joseph. The former national champion for Penn State beat White 5-1 this year, and I don’t see White taking down Joseph on his quest for his first conference title. White should get to the consolation finals, where he’ll likely face Wisconsin’s Evan Wick. Despite a 10-6 loss to Wick to begin conference play this season, I think White has improved enough and exacts revenge over the Badger.

Prediction: White goes 4-1 to finish in 3rd place.

174 pounds (9 NCAA qualifications)

No. 5-seed Mikey Labriola (17-7)

Dylan Guenther / Corn Nation

Mikey Labriola has been solid if not spectacular this season for the Huskers. He’s won two of his last three matches but ended the season with a seemingly demoralizing 7-2 loss to then-No. 7 Devin Skatzka of Minnesota. The Husker sophomore has four wins over ranked opponents and was an All-American as a freshman, so he’s capable of finishing above his seed.

Labriola will face 12-seed Philip Spadafora of Maryland in the first round. After a fairly easy win, Labriola will face Skatzka again for the third time this year. The two split their first two matches of the year, so this could make for one of the more exciting quarterfinal matchups. After their last match, I find it hard to pick against Skatzka here. After a run to the consolation quarterfinal, I see Labriola facing Ohio State’s Kaleb Romero in the fifth-place match. Labriola beat Romero twice this season and I see a similar result in a close match.

Prediction: Labriola goes 4-2 to finish in 5th place.

184 pounds (10 NCAA qualifications)

No. 4-seed Taylor Venz (16-7)

Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Of all Nebraska’s wrestlers, Taylor Venz has the best shot at bringing home conference gold. That’s not because he’s Nebraska’s best wrestler, but instead because 184 pounds is the lone weight class in the Big Ten that doesn’t include an odds-on favorite to win the NCAA championship. Aaron Brooks of Penn State is the 1-seed this weekend and he’s ranked No. 6 in the country, so this weight class could really go a number of different ways.

In the first round, Venz will face 13-seed Jake Hinz of Indiana, who Venz already defeated this year by tech fall 15-0. In the quarterfinal, Venz will likely face 5-seed Billy Janzer (19-7) of Rutgers. The two have not met this season, but I anticipate Venz pulling off a close win to advance to the semifinal where he’ll likely face top-seeded Brooks. During the regular season, Venz defeated Brooks 9-5 to give him his lone loss of the season and could certainly defeat the freshman again to advance to the final. In the championship match, Venz will probably face 2-seed Cameron Caffey of Michigan State. Caffey beat Venz 11-6 during the regular season, but it took a 9-point third period for the Spartan to pull off the upset. I wouldn’t count on that outcome repeating itself.

Prediction: Venz goes 4-0 and wins his first Big Ten title.

197 pounds (6 NCAA qualifications)

No. 2-seed Eric Schultz (21-3)

Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Eric Schultz has been Nebraska’s best wrestler this season and was rewarded with the 2-seed and a first-round bye. Schultz went 8-1 in Big Ten duals with his lone setback a 6-2 loss to No. 1 Kollin Moore of Ohio State.

After a first-round bye, Schultz should easily advance into the semifinal match where he’ll likely face 3-seed Jacob Warner of Iowa. Schultz has been on top of his game lately and beat Warner 3-1 during the regular season, so it’s likely he’ll advance to the championship match to get another crack at top-seeded Moore. Moore has put together one of the most impressive seasons of anyone in the country this year, and I don’t see Schultz getting his revenge.

Prediction: Schultz goes 2-1 and finishes in 2nd place.

285 pounds (7 NCAA qualifications)

No. 5-seed David Jensen (13-4)

Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Senior David Jensen wasn’t the Huskers’ starter most of the season, as fellow senior Christian Lance got the nod for the bulk of conference play. However, Jensen took over late in the year and showed he’s the better option.

After a first-round matchup against 12-seed Jake Kleimola of Indiana, Jensen will face 4-seed Trent Hilger of Wisconsin in the quarterfinal round. Hilger is one of the best heavyweights in the country, so I don’t expect Jensen getting past the senior Badger. After moving through the consolation bracket, I expect Jensen to make it to the 5th-place match and stamp his ticket to the NCAA tournament.

Prediction: Jensen goes 4-2 to finish in 6th place.