Penn State shows why it remains king of college wrestling in win over Iowa at the BJC

The end of Penn State wrestling matches have become routine in the years of the program’s dominance. More often than not, any given dual is wrapped up long before the final couple matches start. The crowd is raucous and cheerful, hoping for more individual wins, but knowing the team has locked up another victory.

Friday night, doubt may have seeped in.

There was a nervous energy throughout the crowd as Max Dean took the mat at 197 pounds with two bouts to go and No. 1 Penn State up 17-14 on No. 2 Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The nerves were palpable until it became clear with time winding down in the third period that Dean would ride Jacob Warner out and secure a victory.

In that moment, the crowd erupted.

Dean’s victory sealed yet another Nittany Lion win in the BJC and once again proved that there remains one king atop the mountain of college wrestling.

The win over the Hawkeyes was not outside the norm from an outcome standpoint, even if the path there was more precarious than usual. Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson gave a lot of credit to Dean and heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet for closing things out strongly.

“We like our team, we like our guys,” he said. “These guys did a nice job. ... After Aaron’s match, because he got five points, we had to win one of the two (at 197 pounds and heavyweight). ... You’re talking about two big matches with four of the top kids in the country. So these guys did a great job of winning some tough matches when it mattered.”

And while the score was close, the aggressiveness was not. Penn State finished with a 16-2 takedown advantage that was indicative of how each bout played out. Rarely was Iowa the aggressor, earning six stall calls while Penn State didn’t earn any.

Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson watches Marco Vespa’s match against Iowa’s Spencer Lee at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.
Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson watches Marco Vespa’s match against Iowa’s Spencer Lee at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Sanderson remained calm, cool and collected as he always does in front of the media following the dual, but did note that wrestling should pull a certain zeal out of its spectators when Penn State’s massive takedown advantage was noted to him.

“It was kind of a slow match,” he said. “A match like that gets great ratings and a lot of people get hyped about it. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re not the most exciting. People aren’t flying around as much. Hopefully it was still a great event for the spectators and for the television audience and whatever. That’s what I would think more about. Yeah good job guys, but I think wrestling’s got to be exciting.”

The pace of each match was slowed by aggressive hand fighting and tie ups that were a major part of Iowa’s performance. Sanderson said that will help teach his wrestlers where they need to get better, something he added that Iowa does a good job of showing opponents.

As he said that, and as the question was asked about the potential frustration those tactics can cause, 184-pounder Aaron Brooks sat between his head coach and Kerkvliet with a wry smile forming.

When asked why the question made him react that way, his smile broadened.

“That’s wrestling,” Brooks said. “Some guys come out and they just hand fight really hard and don’t look to shoot. But like coach is saying it’s the game you play, so you’ve got to figure out ways around it. It just makes me laugh because it’s real. I’m glad you guys see it, since you’re sitting on the outside.”

Iowa head coach Tom Brands said his team needs to do a better job of scoring points and needs to get busy, and that was part of the reason for Friday night’s defeat. That was not a one off, however, but rather a clear flaw that has been with the program as it has fallen behind Penn State from a national viewpoint.

As Brooks’ smile and response will tell you, the Nittany Lions are aware of that. A program that yearns for excitement in the sport and giving spectators a reason to cheer did so again in front of 15,998 people Friday night in the BJC. It started with Marco Vespa nearly securing a cradle, a fall and one of the greatest upsets the sport could see. That may have ended with Spencer Lee earning a technical fall win for the Hawkeyes, but it set the stage for the fireworks to come.

Sure, some of those fireworks came with a few nerves, but they ultimately came from what has been clear for some time.

That the Nittany Lions remain the kings of the sport, with little reason to believe they have anything other than the wind at their back, ready to roll to a 10th team national title in 12 seasons.