By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Penn State has won eight of the last nine national titles in wrestling, but that still isn’t enough to make Cael Sanderson’s machine the team to beat this year.
Because for the first time in at least a decade, Iowa has earned that distinction.
The dynasty before Penn State’s current dynasty has something special brewing this season, considering what Iowa accomplished during the regular season, finishing undefeated and winning its nine Big Ten matches by a combined score of 277-54.
Penn State has come the closest to beating Iowa this season, losing 19-17 on Jan. 31 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a dual in which Iowa lost six points due to Austin DeSanto’s injury default at 133 pounds.
Iowa’s dominance during the regular season won’t mean nearly as much, however, if it doesn’t complete its mission, which is to finish on top of the college wrestling world for the first time since 2010.
That’s the last time Iowa won a national title in wrestling, which by Iowa’s lofty standards, is an eternity.
Iowa has seven All-Americans in its postseason lineup that have a combined record of 107-10, and the group has scored bonus points in 57 of its 107 wins.
All 10 of Iowa’s wrestlers also are ranked third or higher heading into the Big Ten Championships, which will be held on Saturday and Sunday at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J.
“I want the target on our back every single time,” said junior Spencer Lee, who is ranked first at 125 pounds and the two-time defending national champion at that weight. “Each individual has to do their job for a team to win, right? This is a team sport, but it’s also an individual sport.
“So if I’ve got the target on my back, I’m doing a good job and I’m doing the right thing, and I’ve got to go out and do my job. And every single person on this team, if they do their job, we’re going to be Big Ten champs.”
Nothing against the Big Ten Championships, because it is a big deal and Iowa has only won it once since 2011, and it was a shared title.
But it’s not the grand prize, or how this Iowa team will ultimately be judged.
Fair or not, there is no margin for error for this Iowa team, at least with regard to the NCAA Championships.
Iowa could fall short at the Big Ten Championships, but it wouldn’t matter if it bounced back to win the national title, whereas Iowa could win the Big Ten title, but the season still would be considered a disappointment if it failed to win the national title.
That’s how high the bar is set for the Hawkeyes this season.
“This is it. This is our year,” said junior Alex Marinelli, who is seeded second at 165 pounds for the Big Ten Big Ten Championships.
Marinelli said the target is clearly on Iowa’s back this season, despite Penn State’s presence.
“I mean, for sure, yeah,” Marinelli said. “When you’re number one, they want to beat the number one.
“But that doesn’t mean we just go out there and expect to win everything and blow them all out because we’ve got to respect our opponents. You can expect to win, but in a humble way, right. So you’ve got to go in there and respect your opponent and expect the guy to fight you pretty much.”
Iowa’s dominance during the regular season was reminiscent of some its best teams from the 1980s and 1990s, with the only difference being the current team still has to finish the job.
It still has to rise to the occasion, and withstand a dynasty because you know Penn State won’t give up its throne without a fight.
What makes this season different than the previous nine seasons is that Iowa would win the national title if it wrestles up to its potential.
Iowa head coach Tom Brands never has been big on making predictions or bold statements, or comparing his team to others, especially Penn State. Brands had little to say when asked at a recent press conference if the Hawkeyes are the prohibitive favorites.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how we compare to others.”
Brands and his assistants have worked hard over the past nine years to get back to Penn State’s level, and as of right now, they’ve succeeded, but still have to finish the job.
Iowa also appears to be built to last for a while with just two seniors in the starting lineup, including Michael Kemerer, who is the top seed at 174 pounds.
Brands led Iowa to the NCAA title in three of his first four seasons as head coach, but then came along Penn State after hiring Sanderson, who is sort of the modern-day version of Dan Gable.
Sanderson’s presence just adds another layer to the drama because even the most devoted Hawkeye fan would have to acknowledge his greatness.
Sanderson is the one person on this planet that deserves comparison to Gable, and that is the ultimate compliment.
They both wrestled at Iowa State, won an Olympic Gold medal and would go on to become legendary coaches at different schools.
Barnds did say that Iowa’s best wrestling “is in front of us,” and if so, the mission will be accomplished.
It’s that simple, but also daunting at the same time.
2020 Big Ten Championships
Rutgers Athletic Center
Session 1, 10 a.m.
Session II, 6:30 p.m.
Session III., 12 p.m.
Championship Finals, 3:30 p.m.
Iowa's individual Big Ten seedings
125 -Spencer Lee, 1
133 - Austin DeSanto, 3
141 - Max Murin, 3
149 - Pat Lugo, 2
157 - Kaleb Young, 2
165 - Alex Marinelli, 2
174 - Michael Kemerer, 1
184 - Abe Assad, 3
197 - Jacob Warner, 3
285 - Tony Cassioppi, 3