Nits rout Illini, stay unbeaten
UNIVERSITY PARK — The second-ranked Penn State wrestling team moved within one step of its second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 34-7 spanking of No. 11 Illinois in front of season-high sellout crowd of 6,645 Rec Hall fans.
The lopsided win was the Nittany Lions’ 29th straight win overall and 17th in a row in the Big Ten.
Penn State, as it has all year, prevented any drama by winning eight of 10 bouts — with a fall, two technical falls, three major decisions and two decisions — while amassing a 34-12 advantage in takedowns.
Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan expected more out of his Illini.
“It was frustrating. I think our guys took a back seat a little bit too much. I think they got caught up in the environment and some of them didn’t finish matches very well,” he said. “Overall, we need to get better; that’s what I got out of it.”
As expected, the Nittany Lions won four of the first five bouts and took a 19-4 lead at intermission.
Nick Suriano staked Penn State to a 4-0 lead, using seven takedowns in a 17-6 major decision.
“I’m thinking about scoring points and putting pressure on guys. I’m feeling my offense and my confidence improve every match and I’m feeling really good,” Suriano said. “I’m training to win gold in March and I have the best coaches and partners and I’m wrestling the best guys in the room every week and I’m getting better. I’m trying to beat these 125-pounders and if I wrestle my way I can beat all of them.”
After Illinois tied the match at 4-4 with a major decision at 133, the Nittany Lions swept the next three.
Jimmy Gulibon notched a 10-2 major decision at 141. Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf followed with a fall and 26-11 technical fall at 149 and 157, respectively.
Coming out of the break, during which several dozen Penn State wrestling alumni were honored, the crowd buzzed in anticipation of a showdown between No. 1 Isaiah Martinez, the junior two-time NCAA champion, and No. 4 freshman Vincenzo Joseph.
Martinez won 5-2, but the match was closer than the final score and Joseph made him earn it.
Martinez, on the whistle, thudded Joseph’s head several times and referee Michael Chase stopped the bout to warn him about it. It was all part of Martinez’s plan.
“Absolutely. I’m here to wrestle. It’s a brawl when I wrestle. It’s going to be hard. I like to set a tone right off the whistle,” he said.
The difference came in the first period when Martinez clearly sensed Joseph with a bit too much weight forward. The Illini snapped Joseph down and spun around for a takedown. Joseph escaped 17 seconds later and the match went into the second with Martinez leading, 2-1.
A second-period escape from Martinez gave him a 3-1 lead heading into the third. Joseph chose bottom and escaped in eight seconds and the chase was on for a go ahead takedown.
Always a master technician, Martinez countered every shot Joseph threw at him, including a desperation double with eight seconds left that Martinez converted into a takedown of his own for the 5-2 win.
“Well, It was a good match. You’ve got to go get that takedown, find a way to get a takedown,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “Martinez is obviously hard to score on. He’s good at scrambling if you get to his legs. We knew that. Joseph knew that going into the match. The difference was a slide-by, it was nice, but I think Joseph comes away confident that he can win that match but you’ve got to do it.”
After having his hand raised, Martinez gestured to the crowd to yell louder.
“It really wasn’t a gesture. I’m not used to being booed by any fan base because just the way I compete. People come to appreciate it. I understand coming to a place like this, he’s a top five guy and they want him to win, but I’m doing my thing. I had a good laugh about it,” he said.
Heffernan wasn’t as jovial.
“He’s getting better but he wasn’t as aggressive as I like to see him. Yeah, he gets everybody’s best shot. He knows how to win, he’s good, but he’s got a lot more in him,” he said.
Penn State rolled to the finish from there with four straight wins.
Mark Hall, in his Rec Hall dual meet debut, rolled up a 17-1 technical fall at 174.
“I think maybe at the beginning of the week I was a little nervous. And then it changed to excitement and then from excitement it goes to spirited,” Hall said. “I was just real relaxed and real calm and just ready for whatever was gonna happen in the match. It’s unfortunate we only get seven minutes; I wish I could wrestle all day. I’m just doing my part and working to score as many points as I can in any position; that’s what it comes down to.”
Bo Nickal followed with an 18-5 major decision. Matt McCutcheon used a takedown with under a minute to go to earn a 3-1 win at 197 and Nick Nevills posted a 5-0 shutout.
The Nittany Lions finish out the regular season at 2 p.m. Sunday when Maryland visits. It will be Senior Day and Penn State will wear black and pink singlets in a nod to the university’s original colors.