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Wrestling: No. 5 Huskers Welcome No. 13 Minnesota to Open Season

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Nebraska favored as it plays host to the Golden Gophers

For head coach Mark Manning (left), senior Taylor Venz (seated) is part of a stacked lineup that will play host to a solid No. 13 Minnesota team Friday at the Devaney Center.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

The No. 5-ranked Nebraska wrestling team will start its season Friday at the Devaney Sports Center. The Huskers will take on No. 13 Minnesota at 8 p.m. with action airing on the Big Ten Network.

The Huskers have nine ranked wrestlers in the preseason FloWrestling rankings, but things often change drastically after the first week due to changes in weight classes that the rankers aren’t necessarily privy to. Coaches like to keep their lineups and weight class moves close to the vest.

Minnesota sports six starters in the preseason rankings, including the best overall wrestler in the country in heavyweight Gable Steveson. This dual will have some exciting matchups.

Scouting Minnesota

The Golden Gophers return seven starters from a year ago, including a pair of national title contenders in Steveson and Brayton Lee at 157 pounds. Steveson is a future NCAA champ and I’d bet he wins at least one Olympic gold medal. He’s a generational heavyweight. If you haven’t seen him wrestle, I strongly recommend tuning in Friday night.

How to Watch

Nebraska hosts Minnesota Friday at 8 p.m. at the Devaney Sports Center with the dual scheduled to be televised on BTN.

Match-By-Match Analysis

*Individual rankings according to FloWrestling

125 pounds

Nebraska brought in Indiana transfer No. 15 Liam Cronin to man the 125-pound weight class and he’ll compete in a Husker singlet for the first time tomorrow when he faces off against Minnesota’s No. 21 Patrick McKee, the younger brother of recently graduated Gopher All-American Mitch McKee. After redshirting, Patrick McKee started for Minnesota as a redshirt freshman and went 17-8 with a 9-4 dual record. He finished a disappointing 11th at the Big Ten Championships in 2020.

Cronin went 42-31 in his career at Indiana and finished fifth at that same Big Ten tournament for the Hoosiers. Now as a Husker, I think Cronin has the potential to surprise people and take a real step forward. Nebraska’s chances: 70%

133 pounds

It’s uncertain who Nebraska will send out at 133. It’ll be either junior Tucker Sjomeling or Alex Thomsen. Thomsen was last year’s starter at 125 pounds and has improved and impressed over the offseason. I feel like Nebraska will send out Thomsen to face Minnesota’s senior Boo Dryden. Dryden was a junior college champ before going to Minnesota. As a junior this past year, Dryden went 5-5 with a 1-3 dual record. The Big Ten is an enormous step up, but Minnesota thinks Dryden will be solid as a senior. Although, I think this is Thomsen’s ideal weight class and the Husker should get his hand raised. Nebraska’s chances: 70%

141 pounds

Nebraska is fortunate enough to have three four-year starters on this team, and No. 5 Chad Red Jr. is looking to go out on top as a senior. The Husker has been up and down in the past, but according to head coach Mark Manning, Red has been dialed in during the offseason/pandemic. He’ll face either Brent Jones or Marcos Polanco from Minnesota. Jones is a junior with a 15-18 career record and Polanco is a redshirt freshman who went 2-4 during his redshirt season. Red should make quick and exciting work of whoever the Gophers send out. I’m thinking pinfall. Nebraska’s chances: 99%

Big Ten Championship
Chad Red Jr. wrestling during his win over Iowa’s Max Murin in the third-place match at the 2020 Big Ten Championships.
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

149 pounds

Nebraska’s No. 20 Kevon Davenport may just be a redshirt freshman, but the highly touted recruit who went 18-4 during his redshirt year should get the nod to take on Minnesota’s No. 18 Michael Blockhus. However, don’t be surprised if Nebraska wrestles either freshman Brock Hardy or sophomore Jevon Parrish.

Blockhus is a transfer from Northern Iowa who went 22-10 as a redshirt freshman. He earned the No. 13 seed for the cancelled 2020 NCAA tournament for Northern Iowa. This one’s a toss-up. Nebraska’s chances: 50%

157 pounds

After a stellar freshman season, No. 10 Peyton Robb looks to really establish himself as a sophomore, and he’ll immediately get his chance to do just that when he faces off against No. 6 Brayton Lee. Lee is moving up from 149 pounds and Robb is big for 157, so there could be a noticeable size advantage for Robb. Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Lee went 25-6 with an 11-4 dual record. He finished fourth at the Big Ten Championships at 149 pounds, while Robb finished third at 157. I really think Robb will make major strides this year and his grinding style may wear Lee down, especially as the Gopher acclimates to a larger weight class. Nebraska’s chances: 60%

COLLEGE WRESTLING: MAR 07 Big Ten Wrestling Championships
Peyton Robb celebrating after defeating Iowa’s Kaleb Young at the 2020 Big Ten Championships.
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

165 pounds

Nebraska has a few options of who it will send out at 165 pounds, including senior Caleb Licking and redshirt freshmen Bubba Wilson, Isaiah Alford and John Henrick. I would anticipate that Nebraska will wrestle either Wilson or Alford, who’s moving down from 174 pounds. The matchup will be against either Andrew Sparks or Baylor Fernandes. Sparks is a highly-touted true freshman who won a California state championship in 2020 against one of the best prep wrestlers in the country in Cael Valencia, while Fernandes is a redshirt freshman who went 14-3 a year ago while redshirting. There are too many unknowns to make a real prediction here, so we’ll just see what happens and who it happens between. Nebraska’s chances: 50%

174 pounds

This is where things get tough for any Husker opponent, as they’ll face No. 3 Mikey Labriola. The junior All-American will begin his third year starting when he takes on Minnesota’s No. 18 Bailee O’Reilly. O’Reilly, a junior, is moving up from 165 pounds where he went 22-11 a year ago while finishing ninth at the Big Ten tournament and qualified for the NCAA tournament. Labriola shouldn’t have much trouble dispatching O’Reilly. Nebraska’s chances: 85%

184 pounds

Things don’t get any easier for Minnesota here as it’ll face No. 6 Taylor Venz. The senior All-American is one of the best in the country and he’ll face Minnesota’s No. 15 Owen Webster. The senior went 23-12 last season with an 11-6 dual record. Venz beat Webster 5-2 in their dual a year ago. Venz, a perennial contender, will likely win easily. Nebraska’s chances: 85%

197 pounds

The Huskers will trot out No. 3 Eric Schultz, a senior who’s considered one of the favorites to win the NCAA title. He’ll face sophomore Garrett Joles of Minnesota. Joles went 9-12 as a redshirt freshman a year ago with a 3-7 dual record. The senior Husker beat Joles a year ago 17-5 by major decision. Schultz begins the season with a dominant win. Nebraska’s chances: 98%

Eric Schultz taking down Garrett Joles during his 17-5 major decision win a year ago at Minnesota.
Jon Johnston / CORN NATION

285 pounds

Nebraska will either send out No. 13 Christian Lance or junior Cale Davidson. Both are solid wrestlers, but it won’t matter much as they’ll face Minnesota’s top-ranked Gable Steveson. Steveson is one of the best wrestling prospects in decades. As a Gopher, Steveson is 50-2 with his two losses to eventual NCAA champion and then-senior Anthony Cassar of Penn State when Steveson was a freshman. As a sophomore, he went 15-0 while winning the Big Ten Championship. Before college, Steveson was a two-time Cadet World Champion and a Junior World Champion. He’ll be an Olympic champ some day, so anybody Nebraska sends out faces a herculean task against Steveson. Last season, Steveson beat Lance 19-7 via major decision. Nebraska’s chances: <1%

Minnesota’s Gable Steveson celebrates after last season’s win over Christian Lance.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Final Prediction

Nebraska figures to be favored in six of the ten matchups with a few toss-ups. The Gophers have some top-shelf firepower in Steveson and Lee, but the Huskers are one of the deepest teams in the country with nine ranked wrestlers on the squad. Four of Nebraska’s starters are ranked in the top-6 in the country, so I imagine the Huskers to be too much for the Gophers as a team.

Score Prediction: 25-12 Husker victory