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Five things to watch in Penn State wrestling’s second half

As 2018 wraps up, now is the perfect time to look forward to what’s to come in the new year.

For Penn State wrestling, that could mean an eighth Southern Scuffle crown, a chance to take back the Big Ten championship from Ohio State and to earn its fourth straight NCAA title — eighth in the last nine years.

But before March, there’s still a lot of wrestling yet to happen.

Here’s what we’re looking forward to in 2019:

If Penn State will be truly tested at Southern Scuffle

In past years, big-name programs have been in the Southern Scuffle. However, those programs didn’t always use their starters.

Will the same thing happen this year? Only time will tell, but the “midseason NCAA Championships” as Lock Haven coach Scott Moore described the tournament is less than a week away.

The teams listed to compete along with the Nittany Lions right now include: Air Force, Appalachian State, Binghamton, Cal State Bakersfield, Citadel, Cleveland State, Columbia, Drexel, Duke, Edinboro, Gardner-Webb, George Mason, Iowa State, Lehigh, Lock Haven, N.C. State, Navy, Northern Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma State, Rider, Stanford, Tennessee Chattanooga and Virginia Tech. Of those programs, look for the Cowboys and Cyclones to put the test to Penn State as Lehigh and N.C. State are sending just a handful of wrestlers.

RBY’s progression

True freshman Roman Bravo-Young has shown that he can compete on the college stage. He hasn’t wrestled the toughest of opponents but that could come in next week’s Southern Scuffle.

The Tucson, Ariz., native has put on quite the show so far in a Nittany Lions’ singlet. Who could forget his takedown against Lehigh, which gained national attention on ESPN’s Top 10 plays.

RBY is going to have numerous chances over the second half of the season to show why he had an undefeated high school career. He’ll have matchups against Michigan’s Stevan Micic and Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher in duals, as well as some possibilities with Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano and Iowa’s Austin DeSanto in the Big Ten Championships.

How many upsets can Nittany Lions pull off?

The downside to having four wrestlers ranked No. 1 is that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for Penn State fans to root for upsets.

However, as the Big Ten season rolls around and we get into the postseason, there will be plenty of opportunities for guys like Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Shakur Rasheed and Anthony Cassar to prove themselves.

In addition to Bravo-Young, those with the biggest opportunities for upsets at the Scuffle are redshirt freshmen Jarod Verkleeren and Brady Berge, who are both vying for the starting spot at 149 pounds, and Cassar.

Ranked No. 10 by InterMat, Berge will be competing alongside four other ranked wrestlers at the Scuffle, led by No. 6 Mitch Finesilver, of Duke, and No. 7 Jarett Deegan, of Iowa State. Last year’s Scuffle winner at 141 pounds, Oklahoma State’s Kaden Gfeller, is ranked No. 12.

Cassar, ranked No. 5 by InterMat, could also get the opportunity for a big win over Oklahoma State’s No. 3 Derek White.

Once into the Big Ten dual season, some of the highlights will include No. 4 Lee vs. Ohio State’s No. 2 Joey McKenna, No. 3 Rasheed vs. Illinois’ No. 2 Emery Parker and Ohio State’s No. 1 Myles Martin.

After the Scuffle, Cassar won’t have another chance to knock off anyone big until the Big Ten tournament. But once we get into March, things should be particularly exciting at heavyweight, as the senior will have the chance to see what he can do against Maryland’s Youssif Hemida, Iowa’s Sam Stoll and Minnesota’s Gable Steveson.

And if we, as wrestling fans, are lucky — we’ll see at least one more match between McKenna and Lee.

Will the Nittany Lions give up more than three points in a dual?

Over the first part of the season, Penn State has given up just nine total team points in its duals. It is outscoring opponents 177-9.

Those points have all come at 125 pounds. Should Sanderson and Co. stick with Devin Schnupp in that spot, the Nittany Lions more than likely will continue to give up points at that weight class. Although, Schnupp has proven to be able to keep the bonus points off the board, just look at his match against Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney.

The first spot it could occur would be the Feb. 1 match against Michigan in the Bryce Jordan Center. If it happens before then, it would be a surprise or something happened to a Penn State wrestler in the current lineup of starters.

Will the Hodge Trophy stay at Penn State?

Penn State’s wrestlers repeatedly say that winning trophies and awards doesn’t have a lot of meaning to them — as long as they win NCAAs — but as the most prestigious honor in NCAA wrestling, the Hodge Trophy does carry a lot of weight.

Given each year to the most outstanding wrestler, Zain Retherford has kept the Hodge Trophy in Happy Valley for the past two years. Now that Retherford has graduated, the field is wide open — with several Nittany Lions in the mix.

Seniors Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf have been at the top of most early season projections, with junior Vincenzo Joseph also included. After his upset win over reigning national champ Zahid Valencia, Mark Hall should also enter that conversation.

With the main criteria for determining the winner being record, dominance and quality of competition, the Penn State contenders should be able to continue making strong cases for themselves with their propensity to rack up bonus points.

So far this season, Nolf, Nickal and Joseph all have 100 percent bonus rates, including a team-leading six pins for Nolf and Joseph.

The biggest competition for the Penn State guys this season will likely include fellow bonus-point fiends Spencer Lee, of Iowa, South Dakota State’s Seth Gross, who has so far this season been sidelined with injury, and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis.

Right now, it’s Nolf’s and Nickal’s to lose, but only one of them will be able to graduate as a Hodge Trophy winner.

Follow Nate Cobler and Lauren Muthler on Twitter for season long updates

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