The Huskers have won four straight Big Ten duals since dropping one to #2 Iowa to start conference play and they’ll have a good chance to extend that streak to five on the road Sunday afternoon against Illinois.
Off to a 9-1 start to the year, #6 Nebraska shook off a slow start to January and looks to be hitting its stride just in time for its stretch run in February heading into the postseason. Illinois is 3-5 in duals this season and coming off back-to-back 36-6 losses to both Iowa and #7 Ohio State.
The Huskers have nine of their 10 starters ranked nationally while Illinois has six in the rankings, led by #7 Edmond Ruth at 174, the younger brother of three-time NCAA Champion Ed Ruth. Ed Ruth won his titles for Penn State but is on the coaching staff at Illinois.
Sunday’s dual will air live on B1G+ (subscription required) at 2 p.m.
Let’s see how the Huskers and the Illini match up...
Rankings according to FloWrestling
Suffering another Top-10 loss last week was Nebraska’s #9 Caleb Smith as he fell to Wisconsin’s #6 Eric Barnett 5-3, although in controversial fashion. The Husker junior is 15-5 on the year but just 1-3 in Big Ten duals with losses to Barnett, #4 Drake Ayala of Iowa and #17 Pat McKee of Minnesota. He has a win over #1 Matt Ramos of Purdue but not in a dual — it was at Cliff Keen in Las Vegas.
He’ll have the opportunity to get back into the win column this weekend against Justin Cardani of Illinois. The senior is 2-6 on the year and 32-36 for his career. A two-time NCAA qualifier, Cardani has lost his last six matches, getting pinned and teched his last two times out.
After starting his Big Ten schedule against a tough Big Ten gauntlet, Smith is a heavy favorite here.
It’s entirely possible that Nebraska goes with true freshman Alan Koehler here as well. The true freshman took the mat in his first career dual meet last weekend, falling to the top-rated Ramos via 19-4 tech fall. He’s 3-1 on the year and can wrestle in three more duals while keeping his redshirt.
We’re seeing a rapid development from Nebraska’s #26 Jacob Van Dee who has won four straight matches. With a perfect 4-0 record in conference duals, Van Dee’s best win is a 10-4 decision over #19 Brody Teske of Iowa.
This weekend, the Husker redshirt freshman will likely see Anthony Madrigal. A senior, Madrigal is a three-time NCAA qualifier but just 1-3 this year. He’s lost his last three, including a 9-1 loss to Iowa’s Cullan Schriever. Van Dee beat Schriever 5-1 this year at the Soldier Solute in late December.
Van Dee has a brutal late stretch in conference against #4 Dylan Ragusin of Michigan and #5 Aaron Nagao of Penn State. He’ll get a chance in those matches to really put himself on the map nationally.
Junior Kyle Burwick has gotten some dual action this year but lost both matches, one to Big Ten foe Minnesota. It’s entirely possible we see him here if they want to rest Van Dee.
Nebraska’s #7 Brock Hardy took a couple matches off while Blake Cushing took care of business and it seems to have done him good as he picked up a tech fall against Wisconsin in his return.
Now 2-1 in Big Ten duals and 12-5 overall, Hardy will take on Illinois’ #22 Danny Pucino. A junior, Pucino is 7-6 this year and coming off a 12-2 major decision loss to #3 Jesse Mendez of Ohio State. Hardy lost to Mendez 11-3 by major at CKLV.
Last season, Hardy beat Pucino via 16-1 tech fall. I see a similar result on Sunday.
A perfect 19-0 so far this year, Nebraska’s #1 Ridge Lovett starts his stretch run of highly ranked opponents to end the dual slate on Sunday when he faces #10 Kannon Webster of Illinois. He’ll also face #6 Austin Gomez of Michigan, #17 Tyler Kasak of Penn State, and #3 Kyle Parco of Arizona State before the postseason.
Lovett is an ultra-competitive guy who I just interviewed this week (along with assistant coach Tervel Dlagnev) for a feature piece you can find on FloWrestling here. We talked about his career so far, what he worked on during last year’s redshirt, his unique style, who he likes watching to learn new moves from, and his goals for this season. Just a shameless plug from me here.
Lovett has pinned three-straight opponents and is in the running for the Hodge Trophy, given out to the most dominant wrestler each season.
A true freshman, Webster was the #13 overall recruit in the Class of 2023 and is off to an 11-1 start. His only loss came to #9 Ty Watters 4-2. In his last two matches, he beat #14 Caleb Rathjen of Iowa 4-1 in sudden victory before downing #7 Dylan D’Emilio 4-1 as well. For reference, Lovett beat D’Emilio 11-0 by major and Rathjen 6-0 this season.
Don’t get me wrong, Webster is certainly talented, but Lovett is on a different level this season and I don’t expect him to have much trouble with the Illinois freshman.
Nebraska’s #13 Peyton Robb got a much-needed break last weekend as he was spelled by true freshman Ethan Siles who went 1-1 in his two dual matches. This weekend, Robb should return to the mat to face Joe Roberts of Illinois.
With a 14-4 record on the year, Robb has lost his last four matches, all to ranked guys. Against Roberts, Robb has an opportunity to get his first Big Ten win of the year. The Illinois junior is 5-5 on the year but has wrestled Robb tough in the past. Last season, Robb beat Roberts twice — a 3-2 decision and a 4-0 decision.
Robb is a total veteran, and I fully expect him to bounce back from those losses. I just think that after his well-documented leg injury, the rehab that followed and going straight into training and the start of his sixth year, he probably needed a week off from the grind of cutting weight and wrestling top guys. He’ll be back to form on Sunday.
Nebraska’s #16 Antrell Taylor has had an impressive start to his career with a 14-4 record. He’s 3-2 in the Big Ten, coming off a 7-2 loss to #5 Dean Hamiti of Wisconsin who he wrestled tough.
A former Millard South state champion, Taylor will take on #32 Chris Moore from Illinois. A true freshman, Moore is 7-6 this year and has lost five of his last six matches. In his last two matches, Moore was teched by Iowa’s #6 Michael Caliendo and pinned by Ohio State’s #12 Bryce Hepner. He also fell to #17 Maxx Mayfield of Northwestern 8-1. On the other hand, Taylor fell to Caliendo 8-3 while beating Mayfield 4-2 in sudden victory.
This could be a close match, but I expect Taylor to get the win.
If Nebraska decides to sit Taylor, you could see either Jagger Condomitti or Josh Licking here, both sophomores.
In the first match of the dual where Nebraska isn’t favored, #22 Bubba Wilson will take on #7 Edmond Ruth of Illinois.
Sporting a 12-7 record on the year, Wilson has wrestled some of the top guys pretty tough — a 4-2 loss to #4 Cade DeVos of SDSU, a 9-5 loss to #6 Patrick Kennedy of Iowa and a 4-2 loss to #15 Max Maylor of Wisconsin. Wilson hasn’t given up bonus points all season despite moving up from 165 to take the starting spot here mid-season.
Ruth has been impressive this year with a 12-2 record. A two-time NCAA qualifier, Ruth has only lost to Kennedy 5-1 and 11-7 to Keegan O’Toole of Missouri, the two-time returning NCAA champ at 165 pounds. The top-ranked O’Toole bumped up in weight to down Ruth in their dual matchup. A junior, O’Toole has a chance to be a four-time NCAA champ.
I fully expect Wilson to keep things close with stingy defense but his offense has been hard to get to against the top guys so far this year. Ruth will likely be too much for the scrappy Wilson.
Possibly Nebraska’s most improved wrestler would be #3 Lenny Pinto who is 15-3 on the year. After going 22-11 as a redshirt freshman, Pinto has jumped into the top tier at 184 and will take on #30 Dylan Connell of Illinois on Sunday.
Pinto is 4-1 in Big Ten duals with his only loss a 4-1 decision to #6 Isaiah Salazar of Minnesota. In his last two matches, he’s beaten #19 Shane Liegel 7-2 and #27 Troy Fisher 7-3.
Connell is 4-4 this season, coming off a 4-1 sudden-victory loss to Iowa’s Aiden Riggins. Pinto beat Riggins via 17-5 major decision just three weeks ago.
I expect Pinto to keep to his winning ways against Connell.
Nebraska’s #13 Silas Allred has been on fire lately, capturing three straight tech falls to improve to 4-1 in the Big Ten and 17-4 overall on the year. With a 45-11 career record and a Big Ten title as a redshirt freshman last year, it’s unclear who the Husker sophomore will face.
Illinois has used a combination of Joey Braunagel, Isaiah Pettigrew and Peter Marinopoulos this year. Braunagel is 1-5 and just lost via tech fall against Iowa, while Pettirew is 5-6 this year but hasn’t wrestled since the Midlands. Marinopoulos is 1-2 this year but just wrestled at heavyweight last time out.
Regardless of his opponent, Allred is levels ahead of any of those guys. I expect bonus points here.
This is a weight where it’s unclear what either team is going to do. Nebraska has been alternating duals between redshirt freshman Harley Andrews (10-9) and football player-turned-wrestler Nash Hutmacher (3-1). Illinois has #10 Luke Luffman who is 8-3 this year but hasn’t wrestled since Midlands in late December. Last time out against Ohio State, Marinopoulos got the nod and was pinned by Bradley Hill.
Both Andrews and Hutmacher have been improving at a rapid rate so if it’s not Luffman, the Huskers should be heavily favored. If the three-time NCAA qualifier Luffman returns to the lineup, things will get much more difficult. A win by either Andrews or Hutmacher against Luffman would be monumental for them as this Husker staff tries to figure out who its postseason starter will be.