The top-ranked Nittany Lion wrestling team took what on paper was set to be an evenly matched dual against the Buckeyes on Friday and turned it into a 28-9 blowout in Columbus, Ohio — and they did it with two starters out of the lineup and another not feeling well.
With the win, Penn State extended its unbeaten dual streak to 56, with its last loss coming on Feb. 15, 2015, back when senior standouts Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf were redshirting as true freshmen. Penn State has never lost a dual while they’re in the starting lineup.
Here are five things we learned from Friday’s big win:
1. Nittany Lions stronger in third period
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The Nittany Lions’ conditioning was on display Friday night in a dual where they outlasted and wore down their Buckeye opponents, making the most out of that third period.
Nowhere was that more evident than at 141 pounds.
Ohio State’s Joey McKenna got off to a fast start, but Nick Lee’s relentless offense soon proved to be too much, as McKenna started to lose steam quickly after the first period. McKenna’s sluggishness may have had to do with coming back from injury or cutting a bit too much weight, but the pace set by Lee certainly didn’t help.
By the third period, McKenna started to lose some composure, taking awhile to get up off the mat after Lee got a takedown off a re-attack with 1:10 left to tie the bout. Lee — and his coaches — then had enough confidence in his gas tank to cut McKenna loose to go for another takedown, which he got with ease. Lee was able to then keep the No. 2 wrestler down for the final 30 seconds to win.
But Lee wasn’t the only Nittany Lion to shine in the third period. Junior Mark Hall poured on four takedowns and an escape after a second-period ride-out to earn the major decision over freshman Ethan Smith. Nolf added a takedown and four near-fall with a bow and arrow to secure the technical fall against Ke-Shawn Hayes in the third. And Vincenzo Joseph, reportedly under the weather, was chasing Te’Shan Campbell in the final period, securing a takedown and putting on a strong ride to finish with the major decision.
Even in the loss, Jarod Verkleeren was the one on the offensive against No. 3 Micah Jordan at the end of the match, securing a takedown at the edge of the mat to tie the bout before being hit with a questionable stall call.
At the end of the day, wrestling strong in that third period is where the Penn State wrestlers separated themselves from their competition Friday night.
2. Penn State is more than its ‘core four’
With each team favored in five bouts, many expected Friday’s dual to be decided on bonus points. That meant it’d be up to Penn State’s national champs — Nolf, Joseph, Hall and Nickal — plus Anthony Cassar, to overperform and score more bonus than the opposition.
On Friday night, each of those five wrestlers delivered, scoring 23 points between them. But as it turned out, they didn’t need to. The eight bonus points ended up not being crucial, but rather just icing on the cake after some of the younger Nittany Lions stepped up to come up with big wins of their own.
True freshman Roman Bravo-Young silenced the rowdy, sold-out crowd when he defeated All-American Luke Pletcher in overtime, then Lee sucked the rest of the energy right out of St. John Arena when he effectively ended the dual after just two bouts. Verkleeren, a redshirt freshman who’d been wrestling backup since the Southern Scuffle, then put up a tough fight against Jordan, falling by just two points in a bout many thought would be bonus for the Bucks.
Where Penn State was expected to be deep in a hole before getting to Nolf, Joseph, etc., it now had the lead, taking the pressure off the rest of the team. The relief showed, as the Penn State wrestlers all looked to be having fun on the mat, piling on the bonus points not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
No doubt Nolf, Nickal, Joseph and Hall are a special group that will likely not be replicated, but Penn State’s younger grapplers showed a lot of talent and grit Friday night and have the opportunity to help lead the program to continued success.
3. Nickal made an even stronger case for the Hodge
In a dual that featured five Hodge Trophy contenders Friday night, Nickal stood out from the crowd.
With the chance to lock up the dual for his team, in front of an opposing crowd of 13,276, Nickal quickly locked the No. 2 wrestler in his weight class up in a cradle and secured the pin in just 1 minute and 38 seconds.
If pinning the second-best guy in his weight class wasn’t enough to show Nickal’s dominance, he also sits atop the NCAA’s most dominant wrestler rankings, released Wednesday, with 5.33 points per bout. He’s followed by his teammates, Nolf with 5.13, Joseph with 5 and Shakur Rasheed with 4.8, to round out the top-5 most dominant wrestlers in Division I.
With Nickal’s pin — his team-leading 13th of the season — he officially moved into second place in Penn State’s all-time career pins record books with 54, surpassing David Taylor, Josh Moore and Zain Retherford. He now sits just two behind the all-time pins leader in Nolf.
Beyond his record, dominance and pins, the senior also showed sportsmanship on Friday by extending his hand, helping Kollin Moore up and patting him on the back after the fall.
At this point, the biggest threat to Nickal’s Hodge chances is Nolf. The fellow two-time national champ has some dominant wins of his own this season and put on a workman-like performance to dominate the No. 6 wrestler in his weight class on Friday with about every type of takedown in the book en route to a technical fall.
Prior to the dual, Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said Nolf is one of “the elite college wrestlers in the past 50 years,” and he’s not wrong. But with his performance on the big stage, coupled with his increasingly dominant numbers, Nickal appears to be pulling away a bit from the rest of the Hodge contenders.
However, there’s still a lot of the season left to go, and if there’s one wrestler who should never be counted out, it’s Nolf.
4. ‘Energy is energy’
Although the crazy atmosphere last season in Rec Hall undoubtedly played a role in the Nittany Lions pulling out the close 19-18 win over the Buckeyes, Penn State showed on Friday it doesn’t necessarily need “Rec Hall magic” to win big matches.
With 13,276 fans in a nearly sold-out arena, the Ohio State crowd was hoping to create some magic of its own. But the Penn State wrestlers feed off crowd energy, no matter who’s the home team.
In the words of Lee prior to the dual: “Energy is energy.”
When Bravo-Young picked up the overtime win, he did so to a shower of boos from the Ohio State faithful, which in turn just fired Lee up for his match.
“It was a little bit of a hostile crowd, we got a lot of boos, but that’s really great energy,” Lee told the Penn State Sports Network after the dual. “And it’s awesome to see that at other programs as well as ours, and really it makes it a lot more fun for us.”
Earlier in the week, Nickal explained that when wrestling in hostile and crazy environments and in matches as big as against Ohio State, there’s no use in trying to tune out the noise.
“So just embrace it,” he said.
5. The end isn’t in sight for Penn State
After Penn State’s 56th straight win, there was social media chatter from some that Penn State wrestling should be considered one of the best dynasties in college sports right now.
The Nittany Lions still have a ways to go to reach the likes of Iowa wrestling’s 20 national titles and nine undefeated seasons from 1975-2000, and Penn State women’s volleyball’s 109 straight wins from 2007-10, but they do make a pretty good case for right now.
Especially with the UConn women’s basketball team losing its first regular season game since 2014 on Jan. 4, and Alabama football getting dominated in the College Football Playoff, there is some room for the Nittany Lions to enter that conversation.
Having just knocked off its biggest dual challengers in Michigan and Ohio State, Penn State will likely finish off its fourth straight undefeated season come senior day against Buffalo on Feb. 24. In that four-year span, Penn State has won three NCAA team titles, two NWCA National Dual Championship titles, one Big Ten tournament title, and are well on their way to their fourth NCAA championship trophy.
In the past three years, Penn State has also won 11 individual national championships between six wrestlers and brought the Hodge Trophy home twice, and will likely add to those totals come March.
Even though Penn State will take a big hit next season, losing Nolf and Nickal, it’ll still return at least two national champions and has Cassar and Rasheed both working on obtaining sixth years. Even if Penn State drops a dual or two in the coming years, they should still have enough firepower to remain national championship contenders.
Even with a few losses here and a rebuilding year there, the past 10 years seems like it’s only a start for the Nittany Lions team. We’ll see what the next 10 holds.