July 21, 2019 | 92° F

No. 10 Rutgers eyes next big step, embraces challenge at No. 1 Iowa

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Undefeated thus far this season with a record of 9-0, sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault believes Rutgers should aspire to compete with the upper echleon of Big Ten teams and not be content with being in the same conference.

At the Rutgers wrestling team’s media day back on Oct. 28, head coach Scott Goodale said something that coaches generally don’t say too often.

Goodale said he cares about the national rankings and tracks them throughout the year as a benchmark for how the team is progressing. He even admitted he becomes irked if the Scarlet Knights aren’t ranked where he believes they should be. 

At the time, Goodale was satisfied with the Knights’ No. 18 ranking, but setthe ultimate goal of the program was to become a top-10 team.

Just four dual meets into the season and Rutgers (9-1) has used four victories against top-25 opponents to accomplish that goal, coming in at No. 10 in last week’s USA Today/NWCA Coaches poll.

“It means we’ve had a really good start,” Goodale said on the top-10 ranking. "For me, it’s important ... they’re knocking off the top ranked guys and for me that’s what it’s all about … Does it mean anything? I don’t know, to us it does. I don’t know what it means to our fans or the outside, but it just shows we’re doing things right, we’re wrestling and beating good teams and that’s what it’s all about.

Now the Knights are tasked with seeing how far up the top-10 they can climb. 

But with the Big Ten portion of their schedule staring at them in the mirror, it will not be an easy climb. 

Six of their eight conference matches will come against ranked foes, four of which will be against teams ahead of them in the national poll. 

Rutgers will open conference play Thursday night in a heavyweight showdown against No. 2 Iowa (7-0).

During their inaugural season in the Big Ten last year, Rutgers finished with a 2-9 record. Iowa handily defeated the Knights at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in their lone meeting last season. 

Entering the match as the No. 1 team in the country, the Hawkeyes used bonus points in four of their seven match victories to blitz by Rutgers, 27-9.

Sophomore 141-pounder Anthony Ashnault was 1 of 3 Knights to collect victories against Iowa last year. Ashnault upset then-No. 6 Josh Dziewa by way of a 3-1 decision. 

The other two grapplers in a scarlet singlet finished on the plus side of their individual matches are not in this year’s lineup. With full year of experience in the Big Ten and an improved, revamped lineup, Rutgers wants to prove this time around that they can compete with and defeat one of the top teams in the country.

“From that match and a lot of the other Big Ten matches last year, we just learned we got a lot of things to work on, whether it be technically, physically or mentally from the wrestling standpoint to compete in the Big Ten,” Ashnault said. “... We don’t want to just compete with them. We want to beat Iowa's, we want to beat the Penn States, we want to be the best in the Big Ten and in the country.”

Even though these two programs are separated by seven positions in the national polls, their showdown in Iowa City projects to be as even as it could get. 

Both programs boast six ranked grapplers in their starting lineup. Of those six ranked grapplers on each side, only two will meet in head-to-head battles, meaning both teams will have four matches in which their top-20 wrestler is pitted against a non-ranked opponent.

The first two individual bouts of the match will feature the only head-to-head showdowns showcasing ranked grapplers. In the 125-pound class, No. 18 Sean McCabe will face off against No. 2 Thomas Gilman from Iowa. 

McCabe had no problem scoring points in his matchup against Gilman last year, but the junior struggled on the defense in surrendering 25 points and losing by technical fall.

In the 133-pound class, redshirt freshman No. 17 Anthony Giraldo will wrestle in his first Big Ten match against No. 3 Cody Clark of the Hawkeyes.

Although Iowa is a longstanding wrestling powerhouse and the atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is expected to be rowdy, the Knights are treating this as just any other match.

“I do have confidence going into it, but I’m taking everyone the same every match,” McCabe said.

Following their match against Iowa, Rutgers will have a quick turnaround and come back home to face No. 4 Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. The Cornhuskers defeated the Knights, 26-9, in their only meeting last season.

Rutgers rose to the occasion in a tough out of conference schedule to achieve top-10 status and by the end of the weekend, they’ll know how close — or far — they are to being a top-five program.

“We knew this was the toughest weekend of the year right now from a dual meet standpoint. We just got to match the intensity," Goodale said. "Iowa’s obviously a great tradition and maybe the stand mark of the college wrestling and we’ll get a chance to go into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and wrestle one of the best teams in the country. It’s a great opportunity for us and we’re going to fight hard.”

For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

Eric Mullin

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