Wrestling Preview: No. 4 Ohio State Continues Weekend Road Trip at No. 14 Minnesota

By Andy Vance on January 26, 2020 at 5:29 pm
Luke Pletcher vs. Mitch McKee at the 2018 Big Ten Championships
Mike Carter – USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State continues its weekend tour of the Upper Midwest on Sunday night, contesting the second of two primetime road duals on the Big Ten Network. After dropping a tough battle against top-ranked Iowa Friday night, the Buckeyes head to Minneapolis to face the 14th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.

7-4, 2-1 BIG TEN

8:30 P.M. – SUNDAY, JAN. 26

BROADCAST: Big Ten Network

Although the Iowa loss was a bitter pill to swallow for fans, the meet went almost according to script: senior captains Kollin Moore and Luke Pletcher won their matches and remain undefeated and ranked first in the country at their respective weights, and Sammy Sasso unseated Pat Lugo, the No. 1 man at 149. Perhaps as encouraging were close losses by Rocky Jordan and Elijah Cleary, who kept their top-10 opponents within a takedown.

Minnesota should be a more manageable contest for the road team. Where Iowa came in fielding 10 wrestlers ranked in the top 10 – nine of whom were ranked in the top four – Minnesota will bring just seven ranked in the top 25 and only four inside the top 10.

That isn't to say that Minnesota can't or won't win this dual. Bonus points could be a factor, and there are not-terribly-far-fetched scenarios where this one goes down to criteria. At the same time, Ohio State is making steps toward being a really good postseason team, as Jordan and Cleary showed in their battles against elite talent Friday.

Highlights on Sunday night should include seeing Luke Pletcher face yet another Top 10 opponent (something he didn't get to do Friday as Iowa pulled their starters against Pletcher and Moore), Romero taking a crack at the man ranked one spot ahead of him at 174, and seeing if Jordan can upend his second ranked opponent since taking the 184-pound spot in the lineup.

Not to mention seeing The People's Champion, Gas Tank Gary Traub, scrap against the top-ranked heavyweight in the country, Twin City Terror Gable Steveson.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers

Head Coach: Brandon Eggum

Probable Matchups
125 Malik Heinselman (9-11, So.) -OR-
Hunter Lucas (6-5, r-Jr.)
No. 13 Patrick McKee (16-5, r-Fr.)
133 No. 20 Jordan Decatur (9-5, Fr.) Jake Gilva (6-7, r-Fr.) -OR-
Brent Jones (6-10, r-So.)
141 No. 1 Luke Pletcher (19-0, Sr.) No. 5 Mitch McKee (21-2, Sr.)
149 No. 6 Sammy Sasso (17-2, r-Fr.) No. 4 Brayton Lee (18-2, r-Fr.)
157 Elijah Cleary (13-8, r-Jr.) Carson Brolsma (10-9, r-Sr.) -OR-
No. 21 Ryan Thomas (8-5, r-Fr.)
165 No. 12 Ethan Smith (13-8, r-So.) Bailee O'Reilly (18-6, r-So.)
174 No. 8 Kaleb Romero (13-3, r-So.) No. 7 Devin Skatzka (23-4, r-Sr.)
184 No. 23 Rocky Jordan (22-5, r-Fr.) No. 18 Owen Webster (16-7, Sr.)
197 No. 1 Kollin Moore (19-0, r-Sr.) Garrett Joles (8-10, r-Fr.) -OR-
Hunter Ritter (2-2, r-Sr.)
HWT No. 23 Gary Traub (17-4, r-Jr.) No. 1 Gable Steveson (6-0, So.)

Minnesota's record is somewhat mixed this season given how much talent they field. They have four losses this year against seven dual-meet victories, having dropped meets to Rider, Lehigh, Oklahoma State and most recently to Michigan. 

The Gophers also have impressive victories over Cornell and Wisconsin.

Led by highly-ranked seniors Mitch McKee and Devin Skatzka as well as impressive underclassman Brayton Lee and the aforementioned Steveson, Minnesota's lineup presents plenty of opportunities for the Buckeyes to test themselves against future Big Ten and NCAA tournament competition.

The Buckeyes are 17-35-2 versus Minnesota all-time, but come into this contest on a three-meet win streak against the Gophers. Over the past decade, the series has been split down the middle, with each team taking four victories in dual-meet competition.

Notable Matchups

Five matches should feature ranked vs. ranked combatants, including Traub's battle against top-ranked Steveson and Jordan's contest against No. 18 Owen Webster. While I'm not expecting Traub to fell Minnesota's prizefighter, I expect Jordan to come away with the win in his bout as he looked really sharp in Friday's bout against No. 9 Abe Assad in Iowa City.

149 pounds: No. 6 Sammy Sasso vs. No. 4 Brayton Lee

With Sasso upsetting No. 1 Pat Lugo, this match could well determine top billing in the class in next week's rankings. The pair wrestled twice in calendar year 2019, with each man winning a 6-4 decision: Sasso won the first meeting, at last year's Edinboro Open, while Lee flipped the script at December's Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

Sasso and Lee each have two losses on the season. Sasso lost a stunner to Brent Moore in the dual to Virginia Tech prior to his loss to Lee in Vegas, while Lee dropped at 8-3 decision to Oklahoma State's Boo Lewallen in a November dual and was disqualified in the Lehigh dual for an illegal hold that resulted in injury.

Lee is 9-4 versus common opponents over the past two seasons, while Sasso is 10-2. Given how closely they wrestled one another last year, the rubber match could be the match of the night.

141 pounds: No. 1 Luke Pletcher vs. No. 5 Mitch McKee

Luke Pletcher is wrestling like a man possessed. Doubling his career average bonus rate this season, he is not only undefeated, but he's really only been pushed once despite having faced half of the wrestlers currently ranked inside the top 10.

At their last meeting, in the semifinals of the Cliff Keen tournament, Pletcher won a 10-6 decision. It would be a surprise if this one was even that close, as only Stanford's Real Woods has come within 7 points of Pletcher in dual meets this season, and that bout was nearly three months ago at this point.

That said, McKee is having a great senior season. His only other loss aside from that December match with Pletcher was a 7-6 nail biter versus Tristan Moran of Wisconsin. He has wins in 22 other matches, and even if most of those aren't against the upper echelon of the class, getting your hand raised nearly two dozen times in a college season is noteworthy. 

174 pounds: No. 8 Kaleb Romero vs. No. 7 Devin Skatzka

Like Pletcher, Kaleb Romero has improved noticeably since moving up a class. He's gone 13-3 thus far this season, and looks much more comfortable against tougher competition this season than he did a year ago.

In addition to gaining considerable confidence in his ability to compete at the top level, Romero's handfighting has improved by leaps and bounds, which has allowed him to open up his offense. As Tom Ryan put it, he might not have a hundred tricks up his sleeve, but the ones he has he executes really, really well. One of those is a particularly lethal blast double that rattles opponents' fillings and gets fans on their feet.

He moved up a notch in the top 10 after beating Arizona State's Anthony Valencia, and he could do so again this week by swapping spots with Skatzka. Not quite as tough a test as was facing Iowa's Michael Kemerer, Skatzka is still a tough out – and he has a win over Romero this season, a 1-0 decision from back at the Cliff Keen.

Buckeye Breakdown

Friday's meet against Iowa pretty much went by the book, with Ohio State's big guns winning matches they were expected to win, but with Rocky Jordan and Elijah Cleary looking like they belonged in the conversation with their much higher-ranked opponents.

The lightweights continue to be a problem, as Hunter Lucas got rolled against Spencer Lee, one of the toughest pound-for-pound guys in the business this season, and former bad boy Austin DeSanto flatlined Jordan Decatur in the second period.

Questions abound as to the wisdom of letting Decatur burn his redshirt this season, as he's now dropped four in a row against top 10 conference opponents, but this is a match he should win running away. If he comes out flat or looks gassed again early, it may be time to hit the panic button, but assuming he bounces back and looks as sharp as he did in a win against Arizona State a few weeks ago, it'll be a sign that he can have a serviceable postseason and add some points to the team score.

Ohio State should win five of the 10 matches on the card tonight comfortably, and should pick up at least one more between Cleary, Romero and Jordan, perhaps two of the three. Heinselman and Traub unquestionably have tough duty in their matches.

Action from Minnesota's Maturi Pavillion gets underway at 8:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

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