Commentary: National Duals reveal 'loose nails' in wrestling ship
Tom Brands looked for something positive on the evening of Feb. 23.
The Iowa wrestling team had just lost to Missouri in the third-place match of the National Duals, but the head coach gave credit to Mike Evans for a gritty win and Josh Dziewa for performing well on a national stage.
“So you could talk about 184, you could talk about 197, you could talk about heavyweight,” he said. “You could talk about 125, you could talk about 149 and 157, but …”
Brands trailed off, and it was clear: Iowa suddenly has problems at a lot of weight classes.
Earlier this month, the Hawkeyes received gutsy performances up and down their lineup when they knocked off No. 1 Penn State in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Since then, some unsettling signs have popped up with some usually reliable veteran wrestlers.
Matt McDonough has been strangely susceptible to early takedowns. It bit him against Illinois’ Jesse Delgado in a 9-4 loss on Feb. 8, his first of the season.
In the National Dual quarterfinals, Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett exploded through a double-leg shot for a takedown just two seconds in, before McDonough eventually rallied for the win. In the semifinals, Minnesota’s David Thorn had Iowa’s two-time national champion on the ropes twice in the first period before McDonough scrambled out for his own takedowns.
Missouri’s Alan Waters took him down early, and a weary-looking McDonough couldn’t even get up off his stomach. He never got close to scoring on his own and lost, 4-0.
This is as vulnerable as the senior has ever looked entering the postseason. In his last 12 matches, he has as many losses — two — as bonus-point wins. McDonough is still tough to score on, but he hasn’t shown his familiar explosiveness on offense. Smaller, quicker wrestlers appear to be giving him trouble this season.
Iowa’s other once-dependable senior, Mark Ballweg, is suddenly a huge question mark. Ballweg, who started 18-1 this season behind tough leg defense, lost three-straight matches before being sent to the bench against Missouri. Against Minnesota, he offered no resistance late in the match, giving up three third-period takedowns and a major decision.
Even Derek St. John, who entered the weekend undefeated and ranked No. 1, has tended to let matches stay too close, often waiting for his opponent to make a move and reacting in order to score his points. That cost him against No. 19 Kyle Bradley, as St. John finally lost a late-match scramble and fell, 4-3.
These are the wrestlers Iowa counts on to carry the team. And if the squad can’t count on them, the holes in the Hawkeye lineup look a lot bigger. At 149, the Hawks look unlikely to qualify for NCAAs for the second-straight season — Iowa hasn’t won a dual-meet match at that weight class since December. Mike Kelly and Brody Grothus have combined to lose 11-straight matches in dual meets.
The 184-pound class has suddenly become a drag on the Hawkeyes as well. The coaching staff has flipped back and forth between senior Grant Gambrall and redshirt junior Ethen Lofthouse, and the two have lost five of their last seven outings.
The good thing for Iowa is it has two weeks until the Big Ten tournament to fix whatever is ailing some of their stars or to settle on one competitor at their struggling weights.
“We have to get our stuff together and start hammering some things out here,” sophomore Mike Evans said. “You can’t fly into Big Tens and NCAAs with loose nails on your ship. You have to hammer those things down.”
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