How much will this No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up affect postseason race?

Updated: January 27, 2022

Photos: There was plenty of buzz between Penn State (left) and Iowa on Jan. 31, 2020, the last time these top-two NCAA Division I college wrestling programs met in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the No. 1 Hawkeyes beat the No. 2 Dittany Lions, 19-17. The two programs will meet again this Friday night in Iowa City, where Penn State is ranked No. 1 against No. 2 Iowa. (John Johnson photos)

By Mike Finn

Iowa’s Michael Kemerer rarely goes back and watches his dramatic 11-6 victory at 174 pounds over Penn State’s top-ranked Mark Hall on Jan. 31, 2020, a win that propelled the Hawkeyes, then ranked No. 1, over the No. 2 Nittany Lions, 19-17, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“I’ve seen clips that are put out there every once in a while,” said Kemerer, whose win helped Iowa rally from a 14-10 deficit. “It was a great memory and something that is never going to be taken away. It’s a little different when you are actually in the moment. I do remember feeling the energy and all my teammates surrounding me. It was definitely a different experience.

“But the way we are as athletes, we are looking forward to the next match. It’s a great memory I have and people around me will have, but it’s in the past and we’re moving on.”

Michael Kemerer celebrated with the Iowa crowd on Jan. 31, 2020, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the fans cheered Kemerer’s victory over then No.1-ranked Mark Hall of Penn State. (John Johnson photo).

It also proved that regular-season success does not guarantee postseason success for wrestlers. For about 34 days later, Hall returned the favor at the 2020 Big Ten Championships where he beat Kemerer, 8-5. But the Hawkeyes still won the conference championship as Alex Marinelli, who lost to Vincenzo Joseph on that last night of January two years ago, beat the two-time NCAA champ in the Big Ten final at 165 pounds.

This year’s regular-season meeting between No. 1 Penn State (13-0) and No. 2 Iowa (11-0) on Friday night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena is expected to draw as much interest as the 2020 dual when 14,905 fans watched in person or the Big Ten Network record 342,955 who watched from their TV sets.

But the reality is that the results of the upcoming Big Ten Championships, March 5-6 in Lincoln, Neb., and the NCAA Division I Championships, March 17-19, in Detroit, Mich., will be even far more important than the results of Friday’s dual.

For no two schools have dominated the postseason more than Penn State (eight NCAA titles between 2011 and ’19) and Iowa, which has won two NCAA titles since 2010 and were also favored to win the cancelled 2020 Nationals. During this time, Iowa holds a 5-4 edge in dual meets, but the Nittany Lions ended up winning a pair of NCAA team titles in 2011 and ’13 after losing to Iowa in dual competition.

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The two teams have not met in a dual meet since 2020 after last year’s 2021 dual in State College was first postponed, then cancelled because of the pandemic. So how important is this year’s dual that begins Friday night at 8:15 CST? Will it have an effect on potential match-ups to come between wrestlers from these two schools in March?

“More familiarity changes things,” said Kemerer. “You wrestle a match and get in certain positions and you expect things the next time you meet. You keep adjusting and adapting. The principle of wrestling hard the whole match and looking to score points stays the same. But there may be different tactical things.”

Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and Iowa’s Tom Brands realize how important this year’s dual is for fans but try to rank these duals as the next match to bigger goals.

“Whatever the path is that you take towards a national championship, you accept it,” said Brands. “This particular match is important. It’s important to our fans, important to the wrestling world. That’s what makes college wrestling great.”

What do the teams learn from these duals?

“I think you learn every time out,” Brands said. “If your approach is to be open-minded, you can learn a lot about yourself as an athlete. It’s what high-minded, elite people think. It’s not hard to get up for matches like this. Our fans get up for this. But it’s the next thing on our calendar and we must be ready.

“There is a lot at stake with these matches, (postseason tournament) seedings and being able to move forward. There’s a lot of reason to go there, do your job and shine.”

“I just think it’s the way things are,” said Sanderson. “The dual meets are a lot of fun wrestling in each other’s home arenas and seeing kids that you have to beat to win a national championship. I just think it’s positive all around.

“It’s important to see where you are at and continue to improve. Iowa is really good at showing where you need to improve.”

Even though Iowa won the NCAA championship last March, Spencer Lee was the Hawkeyes’ only individual champ. On the flip side, Penn State crowned four champs, including a pair (Nick Lee at 141 and Carter Starocci at 174) who respectively defeated a pair of Hawkeyes (Jaydin Eierman and Kemerer) who had beaten them just two weeks earlier in the Big Ten finals.

That loss to Starocci is one of the reasons that Kemerer, a four-time All-American, returned for a seventh season this winter (after the NCAA allowed an extra year for 2020-21 competitors because of the pandemic). Entering this year’s dual, Starocci, a sophomore, and Kemerer are ranked one and two, respectively.

“If you want to win matches, you have to go out and score points. Sometimes matches go a certain way,” said Kemerer, one of four natives of Pennsylvania –– joining Austin DeSanto (133), Max Murin (149) and Kaleb Young (157) — who will wrestle Friday night for Iowa. “I like wrestling tough opponents. He’s a worthy opponent and it’s exciting to me.

This year’s dual will be the first time that Starocci and six other Penn State starters will wrestle in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The only three who competed in 2020 were Penn State’s other returning national champ Roman Bravo-Young (133), Lee and Aaron Brooks (184). Bravo-Young and Brooks are expected to meet Austin DeSanto and Abe Assad, respectively, in rematches of the 2020 dual-meet bouts won by those Lions.

One of Penn State’s newcomers is one of the Lions’ older wrestlers in 125-pound Drew Hildebrandt, who chose to transfer to State College for his senior year after placing fourth for Central Michigan in 2021.

“I was kind of burned out on the sport and thought I was done,” said Hildebrandt, the younger brother of USA’s Olympic bronze medalist Sarah Hildebrandt. “I started missing the sport a little bit and decided to try a new approach and new school. (Penn State) is a great place to re-ignite your love and passion for the sport.”

Hildebrandt, who did not start wrestling for Penn State until this second semester, is expected to meet true freshman Drake Ayala, who took over the starting spot after Spencer Lee announced his season-ending surgery on his knees.

Hildebrandt couldn’t help but think about the differences between the two wrestlers’ careers.

“I’m sure he sees it as another match,” Hildebrandt said. “That’s all it is. It’s just wrestling at the end of the day.”


Penn State vs Iowa wrestling over the past decade

Iowa leads the all-time series, 28-10-2, and has won five of the last nine meetings since 2010. Since then, Penn State has won eight titles and Iowa two. During this time, seven of the duals between the two power-houses have been sellouts in either Iowa City or State College, Pa. The following is a closer look at those regular-season meetings, as well as how Penn State and Iowa finished in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships each year.


Date Location Attend. Results Big Tens NCAAs
1/29/10 Iowa City 8,923 Iowa, 29-6 Iowa-1st, PSU-5th Iowa-1st; PSU-9th
1/30/11 at Penn State 6,500 Iowa, 22-13 PSU-1st, Iowa-2nd PSU-1st, Iowa-3rd
1/22/12 at Penn State 6,500 Penn State, 22-12 PSU-1st, Iowa-3rd PSU-1st, Iowa-3rd
2/1/13 Iowa City 15,077 Iowa, 22-16 PSU-1st, Iowa-3rd PSU-1st, Iowa-4th
12/21/13 Iowa City 13,747 Penn State, 24-12 PSU-1st, Iowa-2nd PSU-1st, Iowa-4th
2/8/15 at Penn State 15,967 Iowa, 18-12 Iowa-1st, PSU-5th #Iowa-2nd, PSU-6th
Did not meet in 2015-16 regular season PSU-1st, Iowa-2nd PSU-1st, Iowa-5th
1/20/17 Iowa City 14,311 Penn State, 26-11 & PSU-2nd, Iowa-3rd PSU-1st, Iowa-4th
2/10/18 at Penn State 15,998 Penn State, 28-13 & PSU-2nd, Iowa-4th PSU-1st, Iowa-3rd
Did not meet in 2018-19 regular season PSU-1st, Iowa-2nd PSU-1st, Iowa-4th
1/31/20 Iowa City 14,905 Iowa, 19-17 Iowa-1st, PSU-4th Cancelled *
2/12/21 at Penn State was postponed, then cancelled Iowa-1st, PSU-2nd Iowa-1st, PSU-2nd

# – Ohio State, Big 10 co-champs with Iowa in 2015, won the NCAA Championships that postseason

* – Iowa was ranked No. 1 and Penn State ranked No. 2 by WIN before the Big Tens in 2020 when the NCAAs were later cancelled because of the pandemic.

& – Ohio State won the 2017 and 2018 Big Ten Championships