If football is a game of inches, wrestling is a game of seconds. Sunday afternoon in Lincoln, Ohio State lost two or three matches in the waning seconds that led to a huge Cornhusker victory.
Nebraska had yet to win a dual this season over a Top-10 opponent, despite having eight Top-25 starters and having won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational back in December. They changed that Sunday in the Devaney Center, handing the No. 3 Buckeyes their third loss of the season and second in Big Ten competition.
Tied up 14-14 heading into the final match of the night, Nebraska felt confident in in their 165-senior Isaiah White, the No. 4 man in the class. White faced No. 13 Ethan Smith, the man he faced at the Keen and needed extra innings to defeat in a close-fought decision.
Things appeared to swing in Ohio State's favor early, as White called for the trainers midway through the first period after he and Smith scrambled out of bounds. White led 2-0 at that point, and trainers wrapped his left ankle fairly heavily.
Coming back into the bout, White looked like he was in pain, and was consistently slow to return to the center of the mat. Smith's subsequent escape and a takedown late in the second period gave him a 4-2 lead going into the final period.
White escaped quickly, and his riding time advantage made the score a virtual 4-4 tie as the period drew to a close. With just seconds on the clock, White's shot hit paydirt and he gathered Smith's head and ankle for the cradle, and he got the fall with just :02 remaining.
The six team points gave Nebraska the victory, with wins in six of 10 matches on the day, as a surprisingly sparse 'Husker home crowd cheered and the team stormed the mat. Officials dinged the team a point for failure to control the mat area, leaving a final score of 19-14.
For Ohio State it felt like a recurring theme of the day, as Kaleb Romero, Malik Heinselman and Jordan Decatur each let victories slip through their fingers as Nebraska scored at the whistle.
So Close, Yet So Far
Nebraska won the toss and chose to start the meet at 174, wanting to put the meet in White's hands to win.
Romero's match with No. 6 Mikey Labriola looked like another he could win and ratchet his way up the standings, having twice before defeated the man one spot ahead of him inside the top 10. The two men met at the Keen and wrestled to a 2-1 decision in Labriola's favor, and it looked like things might go down that way again this time.
Knotted up 1-1 late in the third, Romero took a shot near the edge but Labriola got the better position, went behind and finished for the points, keeping his toes in the circle as the buzzer sounded. Ohio State threw its challenge brick that time had already expired, but after review the call stood and Labriola was awarded the 3-1 win.
Four matches later Malik Heinselman looked like he might give Ohio State its third win of the night when he snagged Alex Thomsen's ankle on a shot from space, scoring the first takedown of the match with less than 20 seconds left in the period. Instead of getting the rideout, however, Heinselman gave up a reversal to give Thomsen the 3-2 lead going into the final frame.
Thomsen would go on to score another takedown in the third, winning the 5-2 decision.
At 133 things went along similar lines, as No. 21 Jordan Decatur looked for a big win over No. 14 Ridge Lovett. After a scoreless first period, and a Decatur takedown in the second, he led 2-1 going into the final frame.
Opting to give Lovett the optional start holding 1:41 of riding time, it looked like Decatur was on track for the win. Then, things got wild.
Lovett fired a nice single-leg attempt near the edge of the mat, and dragged Decatur back in to finish the takedown. Decatur scrambled and hit a reversal to take a 4-3 lead, but Nebraska's bench threw their challenge brick, and after review Decatur was dinged with a locked-hands penalty.
Crazy sequence. Takedown, reversal and a locked hands call in quick succession.— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) February 2, 2020
End result is a 4-4 tie with a minute to go. pic.twitter.com/keKt8QSFkI
Needing the rideout to win the bout, or at least enough riding time to even out any escape point, Decatur looked like he was riding tough on top after the restart, but Lovett scrambled through with a reversal in the waning seconds of the period for the go-ahead points and the 6-5 decision.
If any one of those matches goes the other way, let alone two of the three, the complexion of the meet is totally different heading into that final match. That isn't to say that the pressure of being the deciding match got to Ethan Smith – he's proven over the years that he's not afraid of big opponents or big situations – but asking a guy to upset No. 4 in the country on his own mat with the meet on the line is no small thing.
The book on Heinselman is much the same: he's good on his feet, he's fast and he takes some good shots. But he's not great on bottom and he needs to be bigger or stronger to finish more of those shots; two years in as a starter and he still looks too small to stand up to the upper echelon of the class.
Romero is a different story entirely, as he was very much in the match from start to finish, and should bounce back from his loss fairly quickly.
Decatur is somewhere in the middle. The bigger questions with him are how well he manages his weight coming into the final 45 days of the season, and where he stands in the lineup next year, as Ohio State ponders plenty of options to succeed Luke Pletcher at 141.
Victorious Road Warriors
It wasn't all late-match heartache for the Buckeyes, as Rocky Jordan, Kollin Moore, Luke Pletcher and Sammy Sasso all came up big in Lincoln, with Pletcher and Sasso each recording major decisions against ranked opponents.
Jordan put the first points of the night on the board for the Buckeyes, managing a major upset against No. 9 Taylor Venz. Despite riding Venz for more than 1:30, a reversal late in the second period gave the Cornhusker a 2-0 lead heading into the final two minutes of the match. Jordan hit a nice single to tie things up, and then rode Venz for the balance of the match to secure the victory with the riding-time bonus.
TWWOOOOOOO! pic.twitter.com/Pl9VaXX5ZP— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) February 2, 2020
It was Jordan's first Top-10 win at 184, and gave Ohio State the lead in the dual at the time.
No. 1 Kollin Moore stepped up next and earned his fifth career victory against No. 10 Eric Schultz. Moore started off quick as per usual, scoring a pair of takedowns in the first 30 seconds of the match. Schultz would slow things down from there, and keep Moore from scoring bonus points.
After three losses in a row by his Buckeye teammates, No. 1 Luke Pletcher stepped up at 141 and went to work against No. 6 Chad Red, duplicating the major decision he earned over Red at the Cliff Keen, dragging Ohio State back within a point of Nebraska in the team score.
The match showcased just how good Pletcher is since moving up to 141; Red was never in the match, and Pletcher scored at will. Moreover, his aggressive pace led to two stalling penalty points on top of the takedown and escape points he earned en route to the 10-1 decision.
After scoring a takedown in each of the first two periods, Sammy Sasso held a 5-1 lead early in the third period versus No. 15 Collin Purinton. With an escape and a takedown in quick succession, it looked like Purinton might storm back and steal the victory from the new No. 2 in the country.
Sasso, however, wasn't done fighting. Catching Purinton on his own shot attempt, Sasso locked up a cradle for a 6-point move that blew the match open for a major decision that gave Ohio State the 14-11 lead at that stage of the dual.
That Sasso cradle thooooooooo pic.twitter.com/KMnliQY7Hu— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) February 2, 2020
It was the perfect demonstration of what makes Sasso so dangerous in the class, and one reason why he is a legitimate NCAA title contender.
No. 6 Mikey Labriola, decision over No. 7 Kaleb Romero (3-1)
*Nebraska deducted 1 team point for unsportsmanlike conduct
|184||No. 24 Rocky Jordan, decision over No. 9 Taylor Venz (3-2)||3||2|
|197||No. 1 Kollin Moore, decision over No. 10 Eric Schultz (6-2)||6||2|
|HWT||David Jensen, decision over No. 23 Gary Traub (8-3)||6||5|
|125||Alex Thomsen, decision over Malik Heinselman (5-2)||6||8|
|133||No. 14 Ridge Lovett, decision over No. 21 Jordan Decatur (6-5)||6||11|
|141||No. 1 Luke Pletcher, major decision over No. 6 Chad Red (10-1)||10||11|
|149||No. 2 Sammy Sasso, major decision over No. 15 Collin Purinton (13-4)||14||11|
|157||Peyton Robb, decision over Quinn Kinner (8-3)||14||14|
No. 4 Isaiah White, victory by FALL over No. 13 Ethan Smith (6:58)
*Nebraska deducted 1 team point for failure to control the mat area
In addition to the close losses by Romero, Heinselman and Decatur and Smith's heartbreaker in the final match of the afternoon, Gas Tank Gary Traub and Quinn Kinner each came home with losses at Nebraska.
Traub faced a much larger heavyweight in David Jensen, and although The People's Champion scored first, he found himself in unfavorable positions a couple of times late that gave Jensen the takedown.
Kinner wrestled his second match of the weekend at 157, and a first-period throw by Peyton Robb led to a 6-0 hole that was too much for Kinner to dig out of. He finishes the weekend 1-1 in Big Ten competition since moving up, and it's not clear that he gives Ohio State a significantly better opportunity to win than does Elijah Cleary down the stretch. He certainly has huge upside and can score points in buckets, but Cleary may be the more sound wrestler technically and defensively.
The Buckeyes return to Covelli Center next weekend for their final home meet of the season, facing Northwestern at 2 p.m.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported a final score of 20-14. Nebraska was docked a point at the end of the final match for failure to control the mat area.