Bonus Points: Dissecting the Buckeye Loss at Penn State

By Andy Vance on February 5, 2018 at 2:00 pm
Mark Hall, Victorious
Richard Immel-USA Wrestling

"Victory has 100 fathers, but failure is an orphan," is a notion that has been rehashed since Tacitus first observed that people have a tendency to cast blame, rather than accept it, when things go off the rails.

And Saturday night in the Rec Hall at Penn State, things went off the rails for a Buckeye wrestling team that seemed     this close     to snapping the Nittany Lions' incredible 42-dual win streak.

After opening with victories in four of the first five matches, and managing to avoid giving up a pin to 149-pound phenom Zain Retherford, the Buckeyes fell apart after intermission, dropping four of the final five matches, and not only losing them, but giving up bonus points the team could ill afford on the way to an 18-19 loss.

The result was something of a Rorschach Test for wrestling fans and analysts: if you were predisposed to thinking that the Buckeyes are overhyped, shrinks under the brightest lights and aren't worth a nickel as mat wrestlers... Well, you found plenty of ammunition to support your argument.

If you believe that Penn State is simply the best wrestling program in the business and that Cael Sanderson is actually a warlock who gets the absolute best out of his wrestlers – even unranked guys battling for a starting spot all season, as was the case at 197 – you had plenty of anecdotes to illustrate your position.

And yes, if you thought that Ohio State always faced an uphill battle in trying to upset the No. 1 team in the country, in an extremely hostile environment, when your best wrestler just stepped off a plane after crossing more than a dozen timezones less than a week after winning the toughest wrestling tournament on the planet, well, you were right about that, too.

So what went wrong?

As Tacitus suggested, most commentators had an idea of what went wrong, where blame should be levied, and that perhaps Ohio State's chances of upending the Nittany Lions at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are slim and none.

This view was perhaps best summarized by Intermat high school analyst Josh Lowe, who pointed out that the Buckeyes couldn't beat Penn State even with one of their five defending national champions sidelined due to injury.

Indeed, Micah Jordan picked up a tech fall at 157, so if you're of the notion that Nolf would have won that match, that's at least an 8-point swing in Penn State's favor, and the match goes from being a 1-point loss to darn-near a blowout.

So what went wrong, then? Here are a few places where Ohio State lost the initiative, and ultimately, lost the meet.

Livin' Large

Let's start off with one of the more common - and ridiculous - criticisms levied against the Buckeyes: Kyle Snyder came up short.

The reigning, defending, undisputed Olympic, World and NCAA champion made no secret of his goals Saturday night. He wanted to "destroy" Penn State, he said, noting that he wanted to beat the Nittany Lions more than he's ever wanted to beat another team in his career.

So when the match was on the line and Snyder was the last man at bat - something quite a few people hoped would be the case because the post-match commentary would have written itself, frankly - it looked like the Buckeyes were in good shape. The problem, however, was that Snyder was asked to dig out of a bigger hole than people realized.

The team score going into the match was 15-19, so Snyder needed the major to tie things up. What he really needed, though, was closer to a tech fall because of the criteria used to settle ties in dual meets.

The need for a 12-point margin of victory may explain some of the tactical decisions made during the match, like cutting Nevills loose at one point instead of riding him out for the final dozen seconds of the period, or the lateral drop attempt gone awry that led to Nevills second takedown of the match.

Snyder knew he not only needed the major, but need to shoot for the tech, in essence, to get the job done for his team. That's an incredible amount of heavy lifting  – literally, given Nevills' obvious size advantage – to ask of a man who had just crossed a dozen timezones, spending something close to 30 hours of the week just flying home from Krasnoyarsk, Russia for the meet.

If you hear someone place the blame for Ohio State's loss on Kyle Snyder, feel free to whack them with a tack hammer.

Kollin Moore, on the other hand, dropped the most shocking upset of the night. Coming into the dual ranked No. 1 in the country at 197 pounds, Moore has an impressive body of work this season, with wins over two wrestlers ranked in the Top 5 in the country and four more ranked in the Top 20.

Instead of facing No. 10 Rasheed Shakur, as expected, Moore squared off against unranked Anthony Cassar, a sophomore from New Jersey who upended Shakur in wrestle-offs earlier in the week (and according to some relevant scuttlebutt, injured Shakur in the process). Cassar was a bit of an unknown quantity, as he didn't wrestle last season due to a pre-season injury, and was a redshirt the year prior. But his 6-3 decision over the top man in the class means he's unknown no longer.

Moore looked flat from the outset. Though he took some shots, it seemed that he was less aggressive than normal, and when Cassar had an answer for everything the young Buckeye threw at him, things seemed to unravel.

It was Moore's only loss on the season to date, and he is expected to stay atop the rankings this week because of excellent season overall. But if there was a clear turning point in the dual, it's hard to argue this one, as the six point swing would have meant an 18-16 Buckeye lead going into the final match of the night.

Meanwhile at 184, Myles Martin not only dropped his match to defending national champion Bo Nickal, he gave up a pair of near-fall points in the waning moments of the match that turned a decision into a major, adding a bonus point to Penn State's tally that the Buckeyes ultimately couldn't afford to lose.

It was a big enough surprise that Martin couldn't muster any offense against his nemesis, but that he would lose the initiative altogether at the end of the match was the moment where Ohio State lost any hope of regaining momentum, and Penn State and its 6,500+ fans in attendance, knew their freight train was rolling down the tracks.

Middleweight Momentum

As noted earlier in the season, Ohio State needs more out of the middle of its lineup. Head coach Tom Ryan went to great lengths to shore up the softest part of his roster during the offseason, bringing Joey McKenna and Te'Shan Campbell in as transfers at 141 and 165, respectively.

McKenna certainly did his job on the night, earning his best win of the season in upsetting No. 6 Nick Lee at a time when it looked like the Buckeyes had everything going in their favor.

Campbell, on the other hand, dropped his fifth match in a row, though in fairness to the former ACC champ, his match was assumed to be a Penn State win given that he was facing No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph. And things weren't going too badly for Campbell through the first three minutes of the match, actually; he took some shots, wrestled some solid defense, and kept things close.

But as the match went on, Joseph picked up momentum and picked up a major decision that pulled Penn State to within 6 points of the Buckeyes. Campbell seemed to lose steam as the match continued, and ate several stall warnings and two penalty points, points that, along with the last takedown of the match, took a decision to a major - a single point that made a huge difference in the final result of the meet.

Mark Hall, at 174, renewed his rivalry with Bo Jordan, and the match was  – as these usually are – a hard-fought, close-won battle. Things were nip and tuck through six minutes, but Hall found a higher gear and put the go-ahead takedown on the board to win the match and pull his team one decision closer to the lead.

A brief word about Ke-Shawn Hayes, who gave up the tech fall to No. 1 Zain Retherford. On paper, this was the Buckeyes' worst loss of the night in terms of the team race, and it might be easy to say, "Well, if Hayes had held Zain to a major, things would have been different," to which one might logically respond, "Okay, you go out there and hold Zain to a major."

The fact that Hayes didn't get pinned by a man who has 15 falls in 21 victories this season is a moral victory in and of itself. Retherford, for what it's worth, has only been held to a major twice all season – once by highly-ranked Ryan Deakin of Northwestern, and at Rutgers versus Eleazar DeLuca, who fans will remember took Hayes to the mats twice in the third period.

Don't give up on Hayes because he couldn't get out from under the best hammer in the business. He'll be fine, and get better as the season goes on.

Win The Third

A few years back, Ohio State's mantra was "Win The Third," a reference to the importance of the final period in the biggest matches of the year.

Saturday night at Rec Hall, Ohio State lost the third more than once, and it ultimately was the team's undoing. Here's how things shook out for the Buckeyes in the final frame:

Wt Final Period Match Result
125 Tomasello: escape, takedown, 4-point nearfall
Kuhn: escape, escape, escape, escape
Tomasello MD, 21-12
133 Pletcher: Escape, stall warning, stall warning
Keener: Earned penalty for Pletcher stalling
Pletcher Dec, 5-4
141 McKenna: Escape, Escape
Lee: Takedown
McKenna Dec, 7-6
149 Hayes: Stall Warning, Stall Warning
Zain: 2-pt nearfall, Two points for Hayes Stalling, 4-point nearfall
Retherford TF, 20-4
157 M. Jordan: Reversal, Takedown, Takedown, Takedown
Pipher: Escape, Escape, Escape
Jordan TF 24-9
165 Campbell: Escape, Stall Warning, Escape, Stall Warning
Joseph: Takedown, Earned Penalty Point, Takedown
Joseph MD, 12-3
174 B. Jordan: Stall warning
Hall: Escape, Takedown
Hall Dec, 6-4
184 Martin: Escape, stall warning
Nickal: Takedown, 2-point nearfall
Nickal MD 10-2
197 Moore: Earned penalty for Cassar stalling
Cassar: Escape, Takedown, Stall warning
Cassar Dec, 6-3
HWT Snyder: Escape, Takedown
Nevills: Escape
Snyder Dec, 15-10

Out of 10 matches, you could say that the Buckeyes won the third three times. Nathan Tomasello, Micah Jordan and Kyle Snyder each wrestled a better third period than did their foes en route to three of Ohio State's five wins on the night.

The other seven wrestlers in the lineup, including Pletcher and McKenna in their victories, either wrestled not to lose, or were beaten quite soundly. Penn State's wrestlers outscored the Buckeyes 34 to 24 in the final round, and if you remove Tomasello and Jordan from the tally, Ohio State only scored 10 points in the last two minutes.

Ryan has preached all year that wrestlers like Pletcher, McKenna and Campbell have to get more aggressive, and have to take more shots earlier in matches. The book seems to be written on Pletcher – he isn't going to lose a match, but he's not going to tech fall anyone, either.

Beyond that one case, however, the Buckeyes simply have to put more points on the board in the first four or five minutes, have to figure out why they've gotten soft in the final minutes, and have to take a long look at some of their strategic decisions about when to cut a guy loose versus when to ride and go for back points.

In each match of the night, there was a moment when Ohio State had a chance to end Penn State's winning streak at 42. Tomasello and Pletcher each could have put up another bonus point, for example – most analysts handicapping the match counted on at least 8 points from the Buckeyes' first two matches – and even Micah Jordan, the lone tech fall of the affair, could have worked to pin a guy who was clearly outgunned in relief of Jason Nolf.

So the loss doesn't sit squarely on any single wrestler's shoulders – it is a team loss, after all – and the Buckeyes have plenty of opportunities to pick themselves back up in the weeks ahead of the next two chapters in a budding rivalry.

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