Rutgers upset by Minnesota in road conference battle
The Rutgers wrestling team used a 12-2 start, which included five victories over ranked opponents, to climb to No. 6 in the most recent USA Today/NWCA Division I Coaches Poll.
The Scarlet Knights and their program-best ranking traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday with the chance to eclipse their conference win total from their inaugural season in the Big Ten through just four matches.
But what appeared to be a chalk-up victory on paper turned out to be a harsh reminder to the Knights that the Big Ten is the deepest wrestling conference in the country.
In a back-and-forth battle, Rutgers split its 10 bouts against Minnesota, but fell short in the bonus point battle leading to a 17-16 upset loss. With their 1-point victory, the Golden Gophers (6-6, 2-2) became the first unranked team to defeat the No. 6 Knights (12-3, 2-2) this season.
“Obviously, on paper, I guess it’s based on their record, you know. We’re supposed to win,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “But I knew Minnesota is Minnesota and maybe not the best team they’ve had in years, but certainly very, very capable. They’re very, very good. That’s the Big Ten being the Big Ten. I said all along you need to be great every single night, it’s a hard thing to do and we weren’t very good yesterday.”
With the match starting at the 197-pound weight class, No. 4 Brett Pfarr used a technical fall victory over sophomore Anthony Messner to give Minnesota an early 5-0 lead. Rutgers responded strongly by rattling off victories in the next three matches to jump ahead, 9-5.
With No. 4 Anthony Ashnault scheduled to hit the mat next, it seemed as if the Knights were going to begin to pull away. But the 141-pound sophomore dropped his first dual match bout of the season to No. 12 Tommy Thorn in an 8-1 decision.
“Going up and down the lineup, it’s one we think we’re going to win and that kind of changes the complexion of everything,” Goodale said when asked if Ashnault’s loss was the turning point of the match. “Now you need to get a win from someone else, like we did against Nebraska where we got one with Gravina, (but) we didn’t get one somewhere else. Yeah, that one, it’s tough putting it all on Anthony, for sure, but it’s one where every time he takes the mat, we think we’re going to win. He just got beat, he flat out got beat yesterday.”
The Golden Gophers responded to Thorn’s upset win by scratching the win column in three of the next four decisions to take a commanding 17-12 lead heading into the final individual match.
With Minnesota holding the criteria advantage, sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina needed to record a pin fall against Pfarr to give the Knights the victory. Gravina dominated the match with an 11-3 major decision, but Pfarr stayed off his back and secured the victory for Gophers.
Rutgers’ loss to Minnesota comes on the heels of two impressive home victories against conference foes. After getting blown out 29-6 in their Big Ten opener against then-No. 2 Iowa on the road, the Knights returned home just two days later with then-No. 4 Nebraska waiting for them.
Following the completion of all 10 individual matches, the scoreboard had showed a tie of 16-16. But Rutgers was awarded with the tie-breaking extra point by criteria because they had scored more total points from individual matches that didn’t end in pin fall.
The Knights’ upset victory in their home opener at the Rutgers Athletic Center fittingly included three upset bouts, which were all key in taking down the Cornhuskers. The most notable upset was Nicholas Gravina knocking off No. 4 T.J. Dudley in a competitive 3-2 decision match.
The Knights followed up arguably their biggest win of the season with a dominating, shutout performance against Michigan State. In front of 3,360 fans at the RAC, Rutgers didn’t concede a single match to the Spartans in a 34-0 win.
The momentum that the Knights seemed to be building up from their previous two matches makes their loss to Minnesota even more disappointing.
But with five conference matches remaining on their schedule, in addition to the Big Ten Championships, Rutgers still has a number of opportunities to avenge their most recent loss, starting with a showdown this Friday against a Wisconsin (1-4, 0-3) team that is very similar to the Minnesota team the Knights just lost to.
“You can’t get caught up in those records because it’s all about match-ups,” Goodale said. “They have four or five kids that we may not be able to beat. So that makes for an interesting dual meet. They’re very, very good in four or five spots. So, you know, our best team against their best team is still a very, very good dual meet. You can’t get caught up in records — that’s just the way the Big Ten is.”
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