Iowa and Oklahoma State facing reality of chasing Penn State

Updated: January 14, 2014

By Mike Finn

Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands isn’t one to concede anything when it comes to the sport of wrestling.

But even Brands, who is in his eighth year heading up his alma mater where he once won three NCAA championships, knows reality when he sees it … and his team’s chances of knocking off the three-time defending national champions from Penn State.

“Penn State is in a different league,” admitted Brands. “It’s not that we can’t compete with them. But that we have to hammer home these points of emphasis.

“For this team to keep moving forward, we have to keep hammering the things that we need to do to create separation. It’s being aggressive in certain positions, being confident to take risks and let it fly instead of not being confident and feeling that I need a safety net.

“In order to get into the ballpark of Penn State, we have to do that.”

Fortunately for Brands, he saw such improvement in Iowa’s 24-6 home victory over Oklahoma State, on Jan. 10, three weeks after the Hawkeyes lost at home to the top-ranked Nittany Lions, Dec. 21, by a score of 24-12 … in which Iowa failed to score a takedown in the final matches of that dual.

And halfway though this season, both the No. 3 Hawkeyes and No. 4 Cowboys — who have combined to win 57 of the 83 all-time NCAA team championships — are now trying to find ways to put themselves in position to challenge Penn State at the NCAAs this March in Oklahoma City.

Brands called Iowa and Oklahoma State, “similar programs” as both teams have lacked consistency this winter.

For Oklahoma State coach John Smith, whose team finished second behind Penn State — and ahead of WIN’s second-ranked Minnesota — at the Jan. 1-2 Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, he was feeling similar to how Brands felt in losing to Penn State before Christmas.

“Overall, we didn’t respond,” said Smith about the loss to Iowa. “We needed to hit them in the mouth and make something happen. Instead, we got hit in the mouth, fell down and dropped our heads.”

Smith, the former two-time NCAA champ who has led his alma mater since 1992, had just seen his Cowboys lose eight of ten bouts in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, including two Scuffle champions — No. 1 Jon Morrison to No. 3 Tony Ramos, 8-2, at 133; and No. 2 Alex Dieringer to No. 1 Derek St. John, 3-2, at 157 pounds. And two other highly-ranked Cowboys who were upset: No. 5-ranked Josh Kindig to unranked Brody Grothus, 9-5, at 149 and No. 2 Tyler Caldwell to No. 5 Nick Moore, 3-1 in overtime at 165 pounds.

“In the end, you have to congratulate Iowa,” said Smith, whose Cowboys fell to 3-3 on the year after also losing to Minnesota and Oklahoma earlier in the year and will face Penn State, Feb. 16, in State College. “These guys came out and won the tight matches.

“That’s what we need to work on. We need to work on ourselves and recognize why wasn’t I ready to fight tonight. Are there some things I can do on a daily basis to give myself that energy and confidence to go out and compete, whether you are home or away?

“Coming off the Southern Scuffle, I thought that was a pretty good effort, but we didn’t show any of that effort tonight.

“In each of our losses, we’ve lack consistency; watching one guy one match and then seeing someone we don’t know the next match.”

Brands could have said the same thing about his Hawkeyes after losing to Penn State, one year after a similar Iowa team upset a Nittany Lion team that was also higher ranked than the Hawkeyes.

“After Penn State, there was some dialogue and it was addressed about taking the big step. But to take the big step, there has to be a lot of baby steps,” said Brands, whose team hosts No. 2 Minnesota on Jan. 25. “There was no ultimatum of either you do it our way or the highway.

“It’s a ‘here is what it looks like. Do you want to wrestle that way? Do you want your hand raised? OK, this is what you have to change.’

“There were tough matches (against Penn State) where we needed to be up and it looked like we were half asleep. I don’t think it’s a quick-snap turnaround. There is a lot of work to be done with this team to get us in the category that we need to be in.”

One weight class, which appeared to solidify for the Hawkeyes was at 149 pounds, where Grothus, who had yielded the starting spot at that weight class to teammate Mike Kelly before Grothus upset two of the top three seeds — Jason Tsirtis of Northwestern and David Habat of Edinboro — at the Midlands, Dec. 29-30, scored an impressive win over Kindig.

“I’ve been building all season and getting tougher. Tonight was going to be my breakout night,” said Grothus, who scored a takedown in the first 20 seconds and built up over two minutes of riding time against the Cowboy.

“I was looking for big moves in the past and now I’m just moving my feet and things are happening on instinct. The big moves are coming because I am wrestling hard.

You have to work hard on all aspects of wrestling. I needed to come out and, like (Iowa associate coach) Terry Brands says, score first, score fast and keep scoring.”

With two months remaining before the 2014 NCAAs, both Iowa and Oklahoma State know the realities of this season. The Hawkeyes and Cowboys must now face and beat those realities.