Well, the regular dual season is coming to a close this weekend with action wrapping up before conference tournaments.
And the No. 8 Nebraska wrestling team will have its hands full against a game No. 11 Illinois team on Sunday afternoon. Outside of facing No. 1 Iowa, this may be the best team top to bottom that Nebraska will face this season, and there are some interesting matchups and opportunities for the Huskers to improve their seeds going into the Big Ten Championships.
The Huskers boast eight ranked wrestlers out of ten weight classes with four in the Top-10. Two Husker starters are still undefeated on the year in Mikey Labriola and Eric Schultz.
The 11th-ranked Illini are 5-2 on the year and have an extremely deep team. They may not have any championship favorites, but they are solid at almost every weight class.
Illinois boasts eight wrestlers ranked in their weight class with three in the Top-10, led by No. 6 Michael Carr at 149 pounds and the undefeated No. 7-ranked Dan Braunagel at 165.
This dual could come down to the wire, so every match is going to be crucial.
How to Watch
The dual is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start and can be seen on ESPNU.
*Individual rankings according to FloWrestling
Nebraska’s No. 7 Liam Cronin has won five straight matches, most recently besting No. 13 Rayvon Foley 14-13. His lone loss was to No. 1 Spencer Lee of Iowa, and Cronin has established himself since.
Cronin will start the dual off against No. 17 Justin Cardani. The Illinois sophomore is 2-5 on the season but has faced a tough road. After a 2-0 start, Cardani has lost five straight matches, all to ranked opponents. It won’t be easy, but I see Cronin winning this one. Nebraska’s chances: 75%
Nebraska’s Alex Thomsen (2-3) and Tucker Sjomeling (3-2) have been splitting time this season at 133 pounds. All of Thomsen’s matches have come in duals while Sjomeling is 1-1 in duals with his other matches coming in the extra matches. Last time out, Thomsen downed Indiana’s Kyle Luigs via pinfall, but he was trailing by double digits when it happened. Sjomeling got the start later that day against Michigan State and downed Jordan Hamdan 10-4.
Illinois will put No. 23 Lucas Byrd on the mat against either Thomsen or Sjomeling, and the freshman has been impressive so far this year for the Illini. Byrd is 6-1 on the year, coming off wins over Dylan Utterback (pinfall) of Northwestern and No. 24 Boo Dryden (11-3 major decision) of Minnesota. Byrd’s lone loss of the year was an 18-6 major decision loss to No. 3 Austin DeSanto of Iowa.
Regardless of who Nebraska sends out, it’ll be an uphill task for the Huskers. Nebraska’s chances: 15%
Nebraska ‘s No. 6 Chad Red Jr. finally gets another crack at a ranked opponent. Red is 7-1 on the season with his lone loss an 8-4 decision against No. 2 Jaydin Eierman of Iowa. Since then, Red has mowed through six straight unranked opponents.
Red will face Illinois’ No. 12 Dylan Duncan who is 4-1 on the year. A three-time NCAA qualifier, Duncan has been impressive this year outside of his lone setback, also to Eierman of Iowa when he lost by third-period pinfall. Duncan is coming off a 14-4 major decision over Northwestern’s Colin Valdiviez.
Duncan is solid competition, but Red seems to be a step above his Illinois counterpart at this point. Nebraska’s chances: 75%
Nebraska’s No. 24 Brock Hardy may get the nod here or it could be sophomore Ridge Lovett. The true freshman Hardy is 4-3 on the year and looks to be a stud in the making, but Lovett (4-0) started a dual last time out against Michigan State and earned a dominant 13-3 major decision victory in his first ever match at 149 pounds. Add in the fact that having Lovett out of the lineup sitting behind Red at 141 pounds has arguably been the biggest thing holding Nebraska back as a team this year. It’s just hard to justify a talent like Lovett not being in the starting lineup.
On the other hand, there’s Hardy who is coming off a 51-second pin in the dual against Indiana before winning a 10-0 major decision in the extra matches against Michigan State. So I’m predicting that Lovett gets the start here and Hardy moves up to 157 over Caleb Licking to get a match in at that weight before conference season.
Regardless of who Nebraska starts, they’ll have their hands full against Illinois’ No. 6 Michael Carr. Carr is a two-time NCAA qualifier and is 5-2 on the year so far. His two losses came to No. 1 Sammy Sasso of Ohio State (pinfall at 2:45) and No. 5 Max Murin of Iowa (3-1). The senior has won his last two, including a 3-2 win over No. 9 Yahya Thomas. This one will be a tough test for either Hardy or Lovett. Nebraska’s chances: 25%
Mike Carr outlasts Northwestern's Yahya Thomas at 149 to pick up another win for @IlliniWrestling. @trackwrestling pic.twitter.com/xaA7IIynJO— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 7, 2021
Nebraska’s Caleb Licking has started all season for Nebraska at this weight class and there are no real signs pointing to him being unseated with one dual left. But I just have a sneaking suspicion that the Huskers wrestling Lovett in the starting lineup over Hardy, who then wrestled an extra match, against Michigan State means that they want to get Lovett in the lineup anywhere they can. He can’t make 133 anymore, 141 has Chad Red, but apparently 149 pounds was doable.
So, it’s entirely possible that Brock Hardy jumps up in weight to 157 pounds against Illinois, possibly a better weight class for him long-term anyway. Plus, Licking has struggled this season as he’s 2-4 on the year, although he’s coming off a 6-0 win over Indiana’s Matt Ortiz. Against Michigan State. The Husker tried sophomore Jevon Parrish against Michigan State, but he lost an 8-0 major decision. So really, your guess is as good as mine, although the safe money would be on Licking taking the mat.
Whoever Nebraska sends out there will have a fairly easy matchup in Illinois’ Johnny Mologousis, who is 1-6 on the year. After downing Indiana’s Jonathan Kervin 10-0 by major decision, Mologousis has lost six straight matches.
Regardless of who Nebraska starts, this one should be a fairly easy win. Nebraska’s chances: 70%
Moving into the upper weights is where the Huskers start to really show their depth and their strength, starting with No. 18 Peyton Robb. Robb has won six straight matches since losing his first two of the year. After moving up from 157 pounds, Robb fell to Andrew Sparks of Minnesota (7-6) and No. 2 Alex Marinelli of Iowa (9-3) to start the year but has won six straight against unranked opponents.
This weekend, Robb will face a big test in Illinois’ No. 7 Danny Braunagel. The Illinois sophomore is a perfect 5-0 on the year and is coming off a 24-11 major decision victory over Northwestern’s David Ferrante.
Robb stood toe-to-toe with Marinelli, so I think he’ll be in this match until the end. Braunagel is a stud, so this will be a very tough match for Robb. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Husker win, but I wouldn’t bet on it either. Nebraska’s chances: 40%
Nebraska’s No. 2 Mikey Labriola moved up a spot in the rankings after previously-No. 2 Logan Massa of Michigan fell to Penn State’s Carter Starocci over the weekend. The Husker junior is 7-0 on the year but only has one win over a ranked opponent, a 13-7 decision over No. 7 DJ Washington of Indiana. Against Iowa, he missed out on a match against No. 1 Michael Kemerer as the Hawkeye didn’t start that night.
Again, Labriola will take on an unranked opponent in DJ Shannon of Illinois. Shannon is 2-4 on the year with his lone dual win a 2-1 decision over Purdue’s Emil Soehnlen.
Labriola is a lock to win here and should be looking for bonus points. Nebraska’s chances: 99%
This is another weight for Nebraska where I feel like we know less now than we did before the season. Nebraska’s No. 17 Taylor Venz has missed three duals while true freshman Nathan Haas has filled in admirable. Venz is 3-2 on the year with his most recent match an 11-10 loss to No. 11 Chris Weiler of Wisconsin on Jan. 31. Venz missed the triangular with Michigan State and Indiana and we don’t know why. Haas went 1-1 in his stead with a 12-3 major decision win over Indiana’s Drayton Harris and a loss by pinfall.
Whether it’s Venz or Haas, they’ll be in for a physical match against Illinois’ No. 11 Zac Braunagel. Braunagel is 4-3 on the year with all three losses to guys currently ranked in the top 12. He defeated Ohio State’s No. 16 Rocky Jordan 2-0 and Iowa’s No. 15 Nelson Brands of Iowa 3-1, so he’ll present a problem for Nebraska’s shaky situation at 184 pounds. Nebraska’s chances: 20%
The Braunagels woke up this morning and decided to do damage.— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 7, 2021
This time it's @BraunagelZac taking care of a Wildcat, ending the third period with a four-point near fall. pic.twitter.com/VyC9Kk9fUe
In a strange twist of fate, Nebraska’s No. 2 Eric Schultz was ranked No. 1 a week ago due to a loss by the previously No.1-ranked wrestler Noah Adams of West Virginia, but he has now dropped to No. 2 after a weekend off from competition. Schultz comes in second because of Michigan’s Myles Amine moving up from 184 pounds and making his season debut with a pair of wins, both 8-5 decision wins over Gavin Hoffman of Ohio State and No. 13 Michael Beard of Penn State.
I can see both sides of the ranking argument here. Amine is a three-time All-American and was the No. 1-ranked wrestler at 184 pounds. He now holds a 95-20 career record and is coming off a year where he used an Olympic redshirt. But at the same time, he’s only wrestled two matches this season at 197 and both were by decision. Schultz, on the other hand, has three wins against guys currently ranked in the Top 10. Either way, things will get figured out at the Big Ten Championships in March where 197 pounds all of a sudden looks a lot more interesting.
Schultz will face Illinois’ No. 25 Matt Wroblewski on Sunday. Wroblewski’s two losses were to ranked opponents, including a 4-0 loss to No. 3 Jacob Warner. Schultz beat Warner when they squared off 3-2. All of Wroblewski’s wins have came aginst unranked opponents.
Much like Labriola, Schultz is a lock here and should be looking for bonus points to secure a team win. Nebraska’s chances: 99%
Nebraska’s No. 12 Christian Lance is probably Nebraska’s most improved wrestler from a year ago. The senior is 6-2 on the year and has won six straight after facing Nos. 1 and 3 in the country to start the year. Lance even won a match in overtime against then-No. 5 Trent Hilger.
Lance will face a stiff test in Illinois’ No. 9 Luke Luffman. In all reality, this match will probably determine who gets the No. 4 seed at the conference tournament. Much like Lance, Luffman is 5-2 on the year with his two losses coming to No. 1 Gable Steveson (35 second pinfall) and No. 3 Tony Cassioppi (3:25 pinfall). Lance fell to Steveson 23-8 by tech fall and Cassioppi 4-0 by decision. Luffman also beat Hilger this season, a 4-3 decision.
This match is pretty split on paper, and the dual may very well come down to this matchup. Can Lance clinch another dual for the Huskers? Nebraska’s chances: 50%
Illinois is a tough team to finish a regular season with a shortage of formidable opponents. A win on the road against a tough Illinois team would be a good way to end the regular season for the Huskers before entering the conference tournament.
I think Cronin, Red, whoever Nebraska wrestles at 157, Mikey Labriola, Eric Schultz and Lance will secure wins for a Husker team win and a 7-1 record. Also, Robb looks ready for an upset win and Taylor Venz could surprise us all and make his return with a big victory.
Score Prediction: 21-14 Nebraska win