It's been two years since Ohio State and Iowa squared off on the mats – the two storied programs did not meet for a dual last season – and the last time the Buckeyes traveled to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Luke Pletcher and Kollin Moore were first-year starters.
Ohio State is set to host its biggest dual meet of the year versus the Iowa Hawkeyes, a matchup of two Top 4 teams with big histories and high expectations.
This season, Ross could write that same paragraph and just reverse the names. That years the No. 1 Buckeyes were on the hunt for a national title and welcomed the Hawkeyes to a near-sellout crowd at the Schott; this season the Hawkeyes are the prohibitive favorite to win at all and host the #4 Buckeyes in what's likely to be a capacity crowd in Iowa City.
Since it's been a minute since these two teams have scrapped, we placed a call to Ross once again for a peek behind the curtain at just what's going on with the Hawkeyes and what we can expect from tonight's dual.
Q: It’s been two years since Ohio State and Iowa squared off on the mat, and only six of the 10 wrestlers in Friday night’s match took part in the 2018 event. What’s changed for Iowa as a program over the past two years, a team that was fourth in the country the last time these two teams met but now sits as the prohibitive favorite to win it all this season?
Ross: Iowa's just gotten a little bit better -- at pretty much every weight. Iowa had just four wrestlers ranked in the Top 10 for that dual -- they're entering this dual with a Top 10-ranked wrestler at every single weight. Spencer Lee was barely two weeks into his tenure in the Iowa starting lineup (and he was less than a year removed from ACL surgery); now he's a two-time NCAA champion who's tech falling everyone he sees.
Paul Glynn and Carter Happel have been replaced by Austin DeSanto, a whirling dervish of offensive activity, and Max Murin, a wrestler who's solid in all positions and has been steadily improving. Replacing Brandon Sorensen with Pat Lugo isn't a notable upgrade (though Sorensen was ranked #2 at the time of that dual, while Lugo is currently ranked #1), but it's certainly not a significant step back, either.
Michael Kemerer and Kaleb Young wrestled at 157 and 174, respectively, in 2018; they've since flipped weights, a move that's made them both better and more dangerous wrestlers. Alex Marinelli was at 165 then and remains at 165 now, but he's grown into one of the key leaders of this Iowa team and one of the best wrestlers in the country.
At 184 Iowa's replaced Mitch Bowman with fast-rising freshman star Abe Assad, who enters this dual fresh off a win over a top-5 opponent and former All-American in Nebraska's Taylor Venz. Cash Wilcke has been replaced by returning All-American Jacob Warner at 197 and at 285 Iowa is set to go from Steven Holloway, a woefully undersized fill-in option at heavyweight, to Tony Cassioppi, a full-sized heavyweight who's been unstoppable so far this season. There were clear weak links in Iowa's roster two years ago; the "weak links" on this year's roster likely would have been the third- or fourth-best wrestler on that team.
Q: Luke Pletcher and Kollin Moore are the only two Buckeyes on the roster who have wrestled a dual in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Facing a legendarily hostile environment, should the two top-ranked senior captains be on upset alert?
Ross: I'm expecting a very large and very energetic crowd for Iowa's dual with Ohio State and I'm sure they'll do their best to give a boost to Max Murin (at 141) and Jacob Warner (at 197) as they try to knock off Ohio State's top-ranked seniors. Both Murin and Warner are coming off losses at the Nebraska dual last week so I'm sure they'll be eager to wash that taste out of their mouths and try to score their biggest wins of the season.
I still think Pletcher and Moore will prevail – they're very, very good – but I think the matches will be reasonably close. If I had to pick one of the two who looks more susceptible to an upset, I'd probably lean Pletcher. He hasn't been quite as dominant as Moore has this year -- bonus in just 61% of his 18 wins this year, vs Moore's bonus points in 83% of his wins -- and has had a few more close calls than Moore has. If Murin can keep the match within a takedown going into the third period, I think he'll have a shot at the upset.
Q: Abe Assad, like Spencer Lee the last time these teams met, is the toast of the town after coming out of redshirt. What is his ceiling this season? Is he set to have a Lee-like run to the NCAA finals?
Ross: Honestly, Assad keeps forcing me to re-assess my views of his ceiling each week. Early in the season I thought he was likely a Round of 12 guy at best this year, with maybe a glimmer of a chance at becoming an All-American if things broke well for him at the NCAA Tournament. Then he went and stormed to the Midlands final and had some impressive performances there and the idea of him edging onto the podium at NCAAs didn't seem quite so far-fetched.
And then last week he knocked off Venz with a very calm, controlled performance. Now an All-America finish seems like a real possibility and climbing higher than, say, the 7th place match seems like it might really be viable as well. I don't see Assad making it to Saturday night, but I can see him scoring some key points for Iowa in the medal rounds on Saturday morning.
Q: Iowa’s team is veteran-heavy, but like Ohio State has just two seniors in the lineup. Is the table set for the Hawkeyes to get back to their dynastic ways of old?
Ross: I think a full-fledged return of the dynasty days of the 80s or 90s is unlikely, particularly so long as Cael Sanderson is entrenched in Happy Valley and bringing in stud recruit after stud recruit. But this is Iowa's best team since they last won a national championship (in 2010) and everyone but Pat Lugo should be back next season. Things are set up for a very exciting pair of years for Iowa fans; they should have excellent opportunities to claim Big Ten and NCAA gold over the next two years. I very much hope they're able to make the most of those opportunities.
Q: Five guys in the Hawkeye lineup are undefeated on the season, but only two are rated at the top of their respective weight classes. How many NCAA finalists do you see on the roster come March?
Ross: My feelings about Iowa's finalist potential have fluctuated a bit as the season's progressed -- but I'm feeling pretty good about them placing four in the finals right now. Spencer Lee is the most obvious choice -- he's the only wrestler on the team who's been in the NCAA finals and, obviously, he's won the last two 125-pound titles.
Austin DeSanto has been on an absolute tear this season and if he and Seth Gross are on opposite sides of the 133 lb bracket (they should be), I think DeSanto will have an excellent opportunity to be wrestling on Saturday night as well.
The other two Iowa wrestlers who I think will be in the finals are Marinelli at 165 and Kemerer at 174. Marinelli has looked extremely focused this year and I think that renewed focus will pay off with his first finals appearance. He's had a little bit of bad luck in the NCAA Tournament the past two years, but I think that will turn around this year. Kemerer has also had a little of bad luck at NCAAs in the past, but he's looked very comfortable up at 174 and I think he'll be able to fight through the field at that weight this year.
Q: This dual feels like a mirror image of the last time these two teams met: two highly-ranked teams, with the top-ranked team hosting in front of a capacity crowd, almost every match ranked vs. ranked. Iowa won four matches that night in Columbus… do you see four winnable matches for the Buckeyes Friday, or does this meet go pear-shaped for the visitors?
Ross: I see three very winnable matches for Ohio State in this dual. They're going to be favored at 141 and 197 and, as I said above, I'm picking them to win those bouts. I think the 149 match between Lugo and Sammy Sasso will be very tight. Lugo has been wrestling very well this year, but so has Sasso – and he already owns a win over Lugo after beating him at Midlands last season. I don't think it would be much of a stretch at all for Sasso to knock off Lugo in this dual.
So if those three matches go OSU's way, we'd just need to find one more win for them to hit your total of four. I think their best bets at trying to nab a fourth win will be at 157 or 184. Cleary has had a bit of an up-and-down season, but Young has had a tendency to wrestle a lot of matches pretty tightly; if he does the same against Cleary he might just need one takedown to pull off the upset.
Likewise, at 184 it looks like we'll get a showdown of two very exciting young wrestlers in Assad and Rocky Jordan. Assad's a true frosh and Jordan is a redshirt frosh, so these two could be seeing a lot of each other if they stick at 184 for the next four years. Both guys seem young, talented, and a bit inconsistent at this stage of their careers, so that seems like a result that could likely go either way without too much difficulty.
Q: What match are you most excited about, and why?
Ross: If I have to pick just one match, I'm going with 197. Moore and Warner wrestled a pretty good match at Big Tens last year and I'm eager to see the rematch. I know Moore's going to be aggressive and looking to score on Warner and I think that will bring out a good response from Warner and force him to go to his own offense early and often in the match.
Big matches and the best opponents have often tended to bring out the best in him over the last two seasons, so I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see Good Warner here. If we do, I think he and Moore could have a really exciting, action-packed match.
Aside from 197, the match I'm most excited about is probably 149. They had an exciting, back-and-forth match at Midlands last season that Sasso won in sudden victory; if the rematch follows that script, it will likely be the most thrilling match of the night. But we could also see a more conservative, defensive approach from Lugo, which would result in a much less exciting bout.
Q: Prediction time: How does it play out?
Ross: I'm going with Iowa by a score of 24-9. I have Lee and DeSanto getting Iowa on the board with some big bonus points early to go up 9-0. I think Pletcher and Sasso bring OSU back to within 9-6, but Iowa's solidity in the middle weights will help them build a 21-6 lead after 184 lbs. Moore gets Ohio State's third win of the night to make it 21-9, before Cassioppi finishes the dual with one final Iowa victory to make it 24-9. Iowa's top-to-bottom balance and overall firepower just looks like a bit too much for Ohio State in this year's showdown.