With the match more than an hour away, the Green Lot immediately next to the RAC was already half full. There was a steady stream of fans walking toward the building. The gates were supposedly going to open at 1:00, an hour before the match, but by 12:30, there were people already inside the building.
It was a sellout (8,319) against the No. 1 team in the country, the first in Rutgers history. Coach Scott Goodale understood how good Penn State was and may have thought about the potential buzzsaw his No. 18 Knights were facing when he said earlier in the week that it isn’t about the wins and losses but about wrestling tough in every match. Well, maybe, maybe not.
On Friday night at home, Penn State topped No. 16 Minnesota, 35-8. The Lions (11-0, 7-0) lost only two bouts against the Gophers, at 125 and 133. And while they took seven bouts against the Scarlet in winning 25-15, there's much more to the story.
Rutgers went out to a 9-0 lead on the strength of a pin by Nick Suriano and a decision by Scott DelVecchio. That was more or less expected. But people were looking at other matchups that were at least even with a legitimate opportunity for Rutgers to win. But with four No. 1 wrestlers at their weights and another at No. 2, the Lions looked to be in a no-lose situation.
A returning NCAA titlist in Zain Retherford (149) looked like a sure thing and three returning runnersup in Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174), and Bo Nickal (184) gave PSU a distinct advantage in the middle of the lineups. The memo on how things should play out didn’t get to the Rutgers locker room.
Rutgers still had a 15-14 lead going into 184 where Gravina faced No. 1 and returning NCAA champion Bo Nickal. The lower and middle weights had held back what had been a blue wave in previous dual matches for the visitors.
At 165, Richie Lewis dropped a 5-4 decision to the No. 1 wrestler in the country. He was aggressive and almost caught Joseph as he got out for an escape in the second period. A Granby roll in the third almost got him a reversal.
Nick Gravina took on the nation’s best at 184 and, like Lewis, lost by a point, 6-5. He pushed Nickal to stalling in the third period. There was no give.
On those two bouts, Goodale was frank. “They’re close. They’re close. But we have to beat those guys. I know that’s the way they’re thinking. I know what Richie is thinking and maybe he has to beat him one time in March. You know? But that’s the bottom line, we have to beat those guys. We’re going to have to beat Bo Nickal for Nick Gravina to be an All-American, a National Champ. Richie is going to have to beat Vincenzo Joseph. That’s just the matches we’re going to have to win. I feel like they believe they can win those matches. I know they trained that way all week. They prepared for it. They believe they can win those matches. They’ve just got to do it.”
Even the medical default win by John Van Brill at 157 was a scramble. Van Brill caught Jason Nolf’s leg in an awkward position and before it could be stopped, Nolf went down in pain. Head coach Cael Sanderson decided to stop the bout giving Van Brill the win. But at the time of the stoppage in the second period, JVB was down by one, 5-4. As Nolf left the mat limping, the RAC crowd gave him a standing ovation. We are....classy.
UPDATE ON JASON NOLF: Penn State coach Cael Sanderson reported that the injury is not as serious as initially thought. He stated it was doubtful Nolf will wrestle any duals the remainder of the season and would prepare for the post-season. Full story via Flowrestling is here.
The 25 points scored by Penn Sate was tied for the second fewest this season; they topped Michigan, 25-12 two weeks ago. And the 15 points scored by Rutgers, was the second most given up; Lehigh scored 19 in a close loss in early December.
There was a question, mused by some, as to how blue or red the crowd might be. PSU travels well, but in the full house on Sunday afternoon it was clearly a Rutgers crowd. And on the couple of occasions when the Nittany Lion faithful started up the “We are....” chant, the boos rained down, drowning it out and the “R....U” chant took over.
“It’s good for Rutgers University, it’s good for Rutgers Wrestling,” commented Goodale on the crowd. “This was our vision; you guys know that. I hope our New Jersey fans leave here saying ‘Wow, I’m excited, I need to come back.’ This thing is going to get bigger and better. There is no question about it. These next couple of months are going to be exciting. I hope that’s the way they leave here. I look around and say, ‘yeah, that’s pretty cool’, you know? We want that to happen all the time. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with watching their guys, and watching Nick [Suriano] and watching everything going on with that. But, I just hope this state and these wrestling fans, a knowledgeable fan base, appreciate good, hard wrestling and don’t leave here disappointed.”
Suriano was certainly a big story, leaving Penn State after his freshman year and transferring to Rutgers. How big was it for him? Was it important for him to “get past” this match against his former team? “I moved on in the summer,” he said. “Like I said, this is another match. I keep focusing on what I need to do better and that’s for me and my coaches to talk about. So, keep plugging.”
Not so much for Penn State. As a blue-clad fan bought 50-50 tickets, he was heard commenting, “I still can’t forgive Suriano.” But that’s a fan, someone who can get emotional. How about the Penn State program?
If you're wondering what Penn State coach Cael Sanderson had to say about Nick Suriano, you're out of luck. Sanderson ducked questions from the media. His team won but he acted like a sore loser. https://t.co/5qlwbSeCW2 #rutgers #WeAre @caelsanderson— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) January 28, 2018
Well, now, that’s interesting. Anything else we should know about how Penn State Wrestling reacted to this match?
PSU wrestling refused to say Suriano’s name in their tweets! Lol pic.twitter.com/RTvxwUuCvB— VegasBuckeye75 (@LasVegasBuckeye) January 29, 2018
Well, I must say, that’s a classy way to handle it. And they still don’t understand why people think they’re, uhhh, different. Oh, and for good measure, the Penn State bench had a team point deducted for unsportsmanlike conduct.
This was a great college wrestling match. Unlike in many other sports, you really don’t find a lot of team upsets in wrestling. You can’t sub in for a cold shooter; you can’t put in a different running back or pinch hit. It’s one-on-one, mano a mano. Penn State came in with a great lineup, loaded with elite college wrestlers. Rutgers was outmanned and Scott Goodale understood that. “I thought we went out to wrestle to win in most spots. Again, I thought the effort was awesome. I think we were going out there to try and score points, have fun, wrestle hard, and be aggressive. In some spots we are outmanned, I get it. But, I’m proud of the way we wrestled today.”
And that’s important. This is not the “same old Rutgers”. This is a team, these are wrestlers, who came here to compete, to win, to take home titles. Are we on the same level as Penn State? No, but the gap isn’t as wide as a lot of people think.
Penn State now owns a 21-0 all-time record against Rutgers, with the Nittany Lions having earned a 37-6 dual win last season in State College.
With the win over Hofstra last Friday, head coach Scott Goodale is now tied with Deane Oliver for the second-most wins in program history at 158. Goodale needs just nine more victories to surpass John Sacchi for the all-time mark at Rutgers, who owns 166 career victories in 17 seasons “On the Banks”.
With his 6-2 decision against PSU, Scott DelVecchio now owns 76 career varsity wins during his time at Rutgers, alone at 39th on the program all-time win list.
Rutgers will be on the road next weekend for two tough conference matches. On Friday, the Knights will be in Evanston for a contest against No. 20 Northwestern (8-2, 3-2). The Cats were at No. 14 Minnesota on Sunday where they edged the Gophers, 20-18.
On Sunday, RU travels two hours south to face No. 15 Illinois (5-3, 4-2) who had won three of four before their Sunday home match against Maryland. Against the Terps, the Illini won, 25-18.
No. 1 Penn State 25, No. 18 Rutgers 15
Attendance: 8,321 (RAC Wrestling Attendance Record)
125: No. 1/1/2 Nick Suriano (RU) wins by fall (6:41) over Devin Schnupp (PSU)
133: No. 19/15/16 Scott DelVecchio (RU) wins by decision over Corey Keener (PSU), 6-2
141: No. 7/8/7 Nick Lee (PSU) wins by decision over Michael Van Brill (RU), 5-2
149: No. 1/1/1 Zain Retherford (PSU) wins by major decision over No. 13/13/11 Eleazar Deluca (RU), 14-2
157: No. 17/15/15 John Van Brill (RU) wins by injury default over No. 1/1/1 Jason Nolf (PSU)
Intermission: Penn State deducted one team point for unsportsmanlike conduct. RU leads, 15-6
165: No. 1/1/1 Vincenzo Joseph (PSU) wins by decision over No. 11/11/11 Richie Lewis (RU), 5-4
174: No. 2/2/1 Mark Hall (PSU) wins by tech fall over Joseph Grello (RU), 24-9
184: No. 1/1/1 Bo Nickal (PSU) wins by decision over No. 12/13/12 Nicholas Gravina (RU), 6-5
197: Anthony Cassar (PSU) wins by major decision over Anthony Messner (RU), 16-5
HWT: No. 8/6/6 Nick Nevills (PSU) wins by major decision over Ralph Normandia (RU), 21-7
Rankings (-/-/-): InterMat / FloWrestling/The Open Mat