The Huskers finished this strange conference-only dual season with a statement win over one of the better teams in the country.
The No. 8-ranked Huskers downed No. 11 Illinois 25-9 on Sunday afternoon to finish out the regular season with an impressive 7-1 record. Illinois finishes the year at 5-3.
The Huskers were poised and generally came out on top in the most opportune times as they racked up seven individual wins against a tough Illinois squad that boasts eight ranked wrestlers (equalling Nebraska’s 8 ranked wrestlers). And in Nebraska’s losses, they showed a lot of fight in matches that really could have gone either way.
*FloWrestling individual rankings used
Nebraska’s No. 7 Liam Cronin started things off with an extremely exciting match against No. 17 Justin Cardani. The sophomore beat Cronin three times last season while the Husker senior was wrestling for Indiana, but Cronin has really improved since joining Nebraska and showed that he’s probably deserving of the No. 2 seed at the conference tournament.
In the first period, Cardani earned the first takedown before Cronin scored a quick escape. Cardani then started the second period with a lightning fast escape to go up 3-1, but Cronin was able to score a takedown on the edge of the mat as time expired, tying things up at 3-all.
Cronin took the bottom position in the third and needed an escape to go up 4-3 and he needed to do it before Cardani could build up one minute of riding time, which is worth a point. Cardani put on an impressive ride and it looked like he’d earn the point, but Cronin found a way to escape to take a 4-3 lead with Cardani’s riding time at 58 seconds. The Husker fought off Cardani’s offense to earn the 4-3 win.
Team Score: Nebraska 3, Illinois 0
Nebraska went with Tucker Sjomeling over sophomore Alex Thomsen to finish the season, and the junior had an impressive showing despite losing against No. 23 Lucas Byrd, who is now 7-1 on the year with his lone loss to No. 3 Austin DeSanto of Iowa.
Sjomeling scored the first points with a quick takedown, but Byrd reversed him before giving up a Sjomeling escape. Byrd then scored another takedown on an ankle pick, but Sjomeling evened things at 4-all with a late escape. In the second, Sjomeling scored two more escapes while Byrd got a takedown, knotting things up at 6-all going into the final period.
In the final period, Byrd started wearing Sjomeling down as he scored two more takedowns with Sjomeling getting a pair of escapes. The Husker fell in a 10-8 decision and finished the regular season with a 3-3 record.
Team Score: Nebraska 3, Illinois 3
Nebraska’s No. 6 Chad Red Jr. has kept with his winning ways, but he’s struggled offensively to a degree. The senior Husker downed No. 12 Dylan Duncan of Illinois to improve to 8-1 on the year.
After a scoreless first period, Duncan took a 1-0 lead in the second period with an escape but not after Red secured about 30 seconds of riding time. In the third period, Red started on the bottom and gave up two nearfall points when Duncan was able to get Red on his back briefly.
The Husker coaches disagreed and threw the challenge brick. After the review, it was ruled that there were no nearfall points, so the score was still a 1-0 Duncan lead and the time was taken back to 44 seconds left in the match. Duncan was able to build his riding time to slightly over a minute.
With 30 seconds left, Red scored an acrobatic reversal (see below) while putting Duncan on his back for two nearfall points, going up 4-1. Red was able to ride Duncan long enough to cut his riding time down to under a minute before the Illini senior scored a last-second reversal, cutting the Red lead to 4-3. But it was too little, too late for Duncan as Red earned the decision.
Team Score: Nebraska 6, Illinois 3
Nebraska went with sophomore Ridge Lovett over No. 24 Brock Hardy at 149 pounds to end the season. After winning by major decision last time out in his first-ever match at 149 pounds, Lovett looked even better on Sunday afternoon as he took on freshman Dan Pucino, who was filling in for an injured No. 6 Michael Carr.
And Lovett did what a top wrestler is supposed to do against a backup wrestler. He dominated.
Lovett took an 11-3 lead in the first period with three takedowns and six nearfall points before giving up a reversal in the second. Lovett then escaped and scored a second-period takedown. In the third, Lovett scored another takedown and put Pucino on his back for four more nearfall points, earning the 20-5 win by tech fall.
Look out. Lovett looks like he’ll be a problem at 149 pounds.
Team Score: Nebraska 11, Illinois 3
Senior Caleb Licking got the start at 157 for the Huskers to end the season against freshman Luke Odom of Illinois.
Licking started the scoring with a takedown in the first period before riding the period out. In the second, Licking chose bottom and scored a reversal on a roll and again rode the period out. The Husker then scored two more takedowns and an escape in the third while Odom scored a takedown and an escape. With riding time, Licking earned the 10-4 decision to improve to 3-4 on the year.
Team Score: Nebraska 14, Illinois 3
With the Huskers looking to put the dual out of reach, No. 18 Peyton Robb fell just short of his upset bid over No. 7 Dan Braunagel.
Each wrestler traded takedowns and escapes in the first and second periods, going into the third tied at 6-all. In the third, Robb started on top and gave up a quick escape. Late in the match with Robb needing a takedown to win, Braunagel hit a beautiful duck-under for a takedown as Robb was advancing. Robb’s loss drops him to 6-3 on the year while Braunagel improved to a perfect 6-0.
Team Score: Nebraska 14, Illinois 6
Nebraska’s No. 2 Mikey Labriola did exactly what he’s done all season. He dominated.
Facing sophomore Trey Sizemore, Labriola wasted little time in scoring a quick takedown before cutting Sizemore loose. He then hit a single-leg shot into a cradle and put Sizemore on his back for four nearfall points. Labriola held Sizemore on his back for over a minute but was unable to get both shoulder blades down for the pin.
In the second, Labriola scored a takedown and gave up two escape points to go up 12-5 going into the third. Labriola scored two more takedowns in the third period to earn the 17-6 major decision victory, improving to a perfect 8-0.
Team Score: Nebraska 18, Illinois 6
Leave it to Nebraska’s No. 17 Taylor Venz to do the most Taylor Venz thing ever. After a year when he’s been in and out of the lineup, Venz came out after not wrestling since January and put it on No. 11 Zac Braunagel (Dan’s twin brother).
Venz came out firing with a fast takedown before putting Braunagel on his back for four nearfall points and a 6-0 lead. Braunagel did record an escape, but Venz added an escape and a takedown in the second to go up 9-1. In the third period, Venz took Braunagel down for the third time and earned a dominant 12-1 major decision win.
Team Score: Nebraska 22, Illinois 6
With the dual all locked up, Nebraska’s No. 2 Eric Schultz was able to wrestle his type of match against No. 25 Matt Wroblewski.
After a scoreless first period with a lot of upper body action and tie-ups, Schultz took the lead with an escape to start the second. Then as time was about to expire, Schultz was able to get a takedown at the edge of the mat with three seconds on the clock. Illinois challenged the call, but the officials ruled that the call would stand, giving Schultz a 3-0 lead going into the third.
Starting out on top, Schultz rode hard and was able to get his riding time over a minute before cutting Wroblewski loose. The Husker held on for the 4-1 decision win.
Team Score: Nebraska 25, Illinois 6
Nebraska’s No. 14 Christian Lance took on Illinois’ No. 9 Luke Luffman and the two fought well into overtime to determine the winner.
After a scoreless first period, Lance gave up an escape to Luffman in the second. Lance then scored an escape of his own in the third. The period ended that way with a 1-all tie, so the two went to sudden victory.
Lance and Luffman went scoreless in the first sudden victory (1 minute, neutral start. Any score wins.) then each scored escapes in the 30-second tiebreakers (each wrestler gets one 30-second period starting from the bottom). So it went into the second sudden victory and Luffman was able to get an early takedown against Lance. The loss drops Lance to 6-3 on the year, while Luffman improves to 6-2.
Team Score: Nebraska 25, Illinois 9
In the four extra matches, Nebraska went 4-0 with three wins coming via pinfall.
At 125 pounds, true freshman Jeremiah Reno pinned Joshua Contreras with three seconds left in the match, while sophomore Alex Thomsen won a 3-2 decision over We Rachal. At 149, true freshman Brock Hardy pinned Andrew Cohen at the 4:58 mark. Not to be outdone, true freshman Brandyn Van Tassell won by pinfall over Isaiah Pettigrew at the 2:39 mark.
What’s Next for Nebraska?
With the regular season over, Nebraska looks forward to the 2021 Big Ten Championships in State College, Pa. on March 6-7.