After dismantling the No. 13 Minnesota Golden Gophers 22-14 last week, the No. 6 Nebraska wrestling team travels to take on the top-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes Friday in Iowa City, Iowa.
306 days later. Never lost sight of the goal. pic.twitter.com/WNzi7bs5av— Husker Wrestling (@HuskerWrestling) January 8, 2021
Despite a win over a tough Gopher squad, Nebraska fell to No. 6 in the NWCA Coaches Poll while Oklahoma State moved up one spot to No. 5 after wins over unranked Chattanooga and Oregon State over the weekend. I don’t understand the drop, but an impressive performance against Iowa would change all that.
The Huskers will be taking on Iowa in the Hawkeyes’ season-opener. So it’s possible that the Huskers can take advantage of some Hawkeyes shaking off the rust. Also, with Nebraska hitting the road for the first time this year, it’ll be interesting to see who the Huskers will bring along to participate in the six extra matches. More on that below.
The Hawkeyes have assembled arguably the best lineup in the history of college wrestling. Now that may sound like hyperbole, but I’m serious. Last season, Iowa had a historically dominant team on the way to a landslide win at the Big Ten Championships. They were overwhelmingly favored to win the NCAA title before it was cancelled.
From last year’s team, Iowa lost just one starter in Pat Lugo, the 149-pound Big Ten Champion. The Hawkeyes added Missouri transfer and three-time All-American Jaydin Eierman to start at 141 pounds with Max Murin moving up from 141 to 149 to replace Lugo. So in reality, the Hawkeyes should be much improved over last year.
Not only are all 10 Iowa starters ranked, but they’re all ranked in the top-10 of their respective weight classes, led by a pair of No. 1s in returning Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee and Michael Kemerer. Eierman and senior Alex Marinelli are each ranked No. 2 at their weight classes.
In short, this Iowa lineup has almost no weaknesses. They’re stacked from top to bottom and any team that wants to win a dual against them will need to pull off a number of individual upsets.
How to Watch
Nebraska travels to Iowa Friday at 8 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with the dual scheduled to be televised on BTN.
*Individual rankings according to FloWrestling
Nebraska improved its lightest weight when it brought in No. 12 Liam Cronin as a transfer from Indiana. After dominating then-No. 21 Patrick McKee 8-1 last weekend, Cronin takes a huge step up in competition when he takes on No. 1 Spencer Lee. Lee was so dominant last season that he went 18-0 with 17 of his wins coming with bonus points. He’s a two-time NCAA champion and won the Hodge Trophy last season as the country’s most dominant wrestler. Lee, now a senior, is 63-5 in his career and 22-0 in Big Ten duals.
Cronin now holds a 43-31 career record and finished fifth at the Big Ten tournament for the Hoosiers in 2020. Cronin is a solid 125-pounder, but it’ll take a herculean effort from the senior to win this one. I’d consider it a win for Nebraska if Cronin doesn’t get tech-falled or pinned honestly. Nebraska’s chances: 1%
Nebraska had a disappointing opener at 133 pounds as both junior Tucker Sjomeling and sophomore Alex Thomsen lost against Minnesota. Thomsen lost to now-No. 24 Boo Dryden 9-2 while Sjomeling lost 3-1 to Jake Gliva. I expect Nebraska to send out Thomsen again to take on No. 4 Austin DeSanto, as last week’s match was a tough one stylistically for Thomsen. Against the over 6-foot Dryden, Thomsen struggled with his height and length while also making his debut after moving up from 125 to 133. Against the two-time All-American DeSanto, Thomsen won’t have to deal with such a size discrepancy.
But that doesn’t mean that Thomsen won’t have his hands full. DeSanto is one of the best in the country and has a non-stop motor. Nebraska’s chances: 5%
Nebraska ‘s No. 5 Chad Red Jr. opened his season with an underwhelming 4-1 decision over Minnesota’s Marcos Polanco. On Friday, Red will face No. 2 Jaydin Eierman for the first time in his career. Red and Eierman are both three-time All-Americans and have exciting styles. They are both elite scramblers, so expect this match to be the most action packed of the day. On paper, Eierman looks to have the advantage, but with these two having never matched up, it’s impossible to tell who has the advantage. However, Red is notorious for slow starts to his seasons, so it’s possible Eierman runs away with this one. Nebraska’s chances: 45%
After earning the starting nod last week, No. 18 Brock Hardy came out and put it on a tough competitor in then-No. 18 Michael Blockhus of Minnesota. The true freshman Husker showed serious skills both offensively and defensively in his 9-2 win over Blockhus, hence his jump from being unranked all the way to No. 18. Now it’s time to see if Hardy can compete consistently when he takes on Iowa’s No. 6 Max Murin. Murin, last season’s starter at 141 for Iowa, will be making an adjustment from the move up and may be at a noticeable size disadvantage against Hardy, who seems to be cutting a lot to get to 149 pounds.
I was just so impressed with Hardy last weekend that I’m calling the upset for the freshman who’s about to put everyone else at 149 on notice. Nebraska’s chances: 50%
Nebraska went with No. 25 Caleb Licking to open the year at 157 pounds. The senior showed pretty well against then No. 6 Brayton Lee of Minnesota. With two minutes left, the score was knotted at 2-all, but Lee pulled away in the end for a 10-5 decision win. At Iowa, Licking will face No. 9 Kaleb Young, an All-American with a 48-19 career record. Young went 15-5 a year ago with a disappointing 0-2 finish at the Big Ten tournament. This match is winnable for Licking, but he’ll need to be at his best. Nebraska’s chances: 35%
After a stellar freshman season at 157 pounds, No. 17 Peyton Robb moved up to 165 pounds to begin his sophomore campaign. He jumped out to a rough start last weekend when he lost a close 7-6 decision to Minnesota true freshman Andrew Sparks. Sparks is legit, but Robb has been through the grind of a Big Ten season, so it’s concerning that the Husker didn’t pull out the win. Against Iowa, Robb will face the unenviable task of taking on No. 2 Alex Marinelli. The senior Hawkeye holds a 66-9 career record while earning All-American honors three times and two Big Ten Championships. “The Bull” as he’s called, Marinelli is a brute who will be a tough matchup for Robb as he acclimates to a bigger weight class. I think Robb has the ability to keep this one to a regular decision, but I don’t like his chances to pull off the upset. Nebraska’s chances: 10%
Nebraska’s No. 3 Mikey Labriola had an impressive start to the 2021 season with a win by pinfall over Minnesota’s Jake Allar. The junior All-American for the Huskers looks to be really coming into his own as a leader for this team, and this week he’ll get to prove that he belongs in the national championship conversation when he takes on No. 1 Michael Kemerer. Last year, Kemerer beat Labriola 3-1 and he’s one of the best in the country at any weight. This is a big test for Labriola. Time to find out where he’s at. Nebraska’s chances: 40%
After missing last week’s dual, No. 6 Taylor Venz looks to kick off his season in style against No. 8 Abe Assad or Nelson Brands. It’s unclear who the Hawkeyes will put out there, but Venz should be slightly favored against either. Venz and Assad split matches last year with Venz downing the Hawkeye most recently 6-4 in the third-place match at the Big Ten tournament. Nebraska’s chances: 60%
The third top-5 matchup of the night will be between Nebraska’s No. 3 Eric Schultz and No. 4 Jacob Warner of Iowa. Last week, Schultz impressed for Nebraska as he recorded a 14-3 tech fall win over Minnesota’s Garrett Joles thanks to a late takedown and nearfall points (see below). Schultz and Warner matched up once last season with the Husker winning 3-1. I see this one being a similarly close, low-scoring match with Schultz coming out on top. Nebraska’s chances: 75%
Nebraska’s No. 12 Christian Lance continues his difficult season opening stretch with another top-shelf opponent in Iowa’s No. 3 Tony Cassioppi. After falling to No. 1 Gable Steveson of Minnesota 23-8 by tech fall, Lance looks to rebound against the Hawkeye sophomore. Last season, Lance fell to Cassioppi 6-1. Here’s another matchup where I’d consider it a win if Nebraska avoids giving up bonus points. Nebraska’s chances: 10%
Based on rankings, Nebraska will be favored in just two of the ten matchups at Friday’s dual, but many of the matches are also winnable for the Huskers. Chad Red Jr. has all the ability to beat Eierman, while I also see Hardy upsetting Murin. At 174, Labriola beating Kemerer wouldn’t shock me at all, and I expect Schultz to take care of business against Warner. I see Nebraska winning four matchups, but this Iowa squad is full of guys who score bonus points and I see Lee, DeSanto, Marinelli and Cassioppi all being capable of bonus point wins on Friday.
In short, Nebraska will need a few upsets and maybe a pin along the way to have any hope of a team win against the Iowa juggernaut.
Score Prediction: 24-12 Iowa victory
With teams being permitted to bring 16 wrestlers on dual road trips and 20 for tri and quad meets, it’ll be interesting to see who the Husker coaching staff brings along on their first road trip. These extra six wrestlers won’t just sit as backups, as they’ll face off against Iowa’s non-starters in the extra matches that are permitted with this truncated schedule.
Last week, Minnesota brought its desired six extra wrestlers, and the Husker backups struggled, winning just one of the six matches. This week will be difficult, but the Husker staff will also get to hand pick their guys at the weights they choose. Minnesota didn’t bring a backup 141-pounder, so a guy like Ridge Lovett didn’t get the chance to compete. If not for Red, Lovett would certainly be a ranked guy that could make some noise in the Big Ten. I anticipate Lovett will make the trip and will wrestle his first match of the season.
Some possible extra competitors would include Jeremiah Reno at 125, Dominick Serrano at 133, Kevon Davenport at 157, Nathan Haas at 184 pounds, Silas Allred at 197 and Landon Brown at 285. Reno and Serrano are big-time true freshmen while Davenport is an option at 157, although he dropped his first match last week by tech fall against Minnesota. Against Minnesota, Haas filled in for Venz and defeated then-No. 15 Owen Webster 5-2 and looked impressive while doing it. Allred wrestled in an extra match last week, falling 8-4. Brown picked up Nebraska’s lone extra match win last week with a first-period pin over Minnesota’s Keaton Kluever.
There are other options for these extra wrestlers, but with the uncertainty at 133 and 157 especially, I anticipate the Huskers to keep giving their backups opportunities there to figure out their optimal lineup.