Rutgers falls short against Wisconsin, No. 8 Michigan at home
It wasn’t a spot unfamiliar to the Rutgers wrestling team this season.
On the heels of an upset loss at home to Wisconsin (2-5, 1-4) less than 48 hours prior, the No. 12 Scarlet Knights had reeled off 13 points by way of three straight wins — capped off by a pin fall from junior 174-pounder Phillip Bakuckas that sent the 3,091 in attendance at the Rutgers Athletic Center into a frenzy — to build a 16-10 lead over No. 8 Michigan.
The Knights had to secure one more decision win while not surrendering any bonus points in the final three bouts to pick up their sixth-ranked win and bounce back from a disappointing loss with a win against a top-10 opponent for the second time this season.
But four individual periods and about 15 minutes of real time later, the life had been completely sucked out of the building and Rutgers walked off the mat at the RAC for the final time of the 2015-16 season on the short side of a 27-16 loss.
“We know they’re really good there. I don’t want to say we made them look better. It wasn’t really competitive to be honest with you,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “It happened pretty quick.”
Filling in for the injured sophomore No. 20 Nicholas Gravina, junior Anthony Pafumi was pitted against No. 4 Domenic Abounader at 184-pounds. Abounader was in complete control and put a huge dent in the Knights’ 16-10 lead with a technical fall early in second period.
With Rutgers' momentum halted, senior 197-pounder Hayden Hrymack hit the mat against No. 6 Max Huntley. Huntley got Hrymack on his back late in the first period and was able to secure a pin fall to put Michigan back on top 21-16 after just three individual periods.
Now, with the Knights needing a pin fall to win the dual meet, No. 13 Billy Smith was the Knights' last hope.
But just as the prior two matches, No. 4 Adam Coon simply outmatched Rutgers’ heavyweight senior, pinning him in 2:25 and putting the finishing touches on a 17-point blitzing from the Wolverines in the final three matches.
Just when it seemed like the Knights had grabbed all of the momentum following Bakuckas’s pin fall, Michigan’s top-three wrestlers took it right back with ease.
“It shifted to here come their three horses, really,” Goodale said of his mindset was after Bakuckas’s pin fall had settled in. “We’re gonna need an upset somewhere, like Gravina did with Dudley against Nebraska. That’s what I’m thinking, who’s gonna be the guy to pull this upset. I didn’t know who is was gonna be and as it turned out, we weren’t really close to that."
On paper, the match between Rutgers and the Wolverines was about as close as it gets.
The two teams separated by four spots in the national rankings each boasted seven ranked grapplers in its respective lineup, with four of them scheduled to battle head-to-head. Heading into intermission, the dual had been played just how it appeared on paper, with four of the first five matches being decided by two points.
Michigan took the first two bouts in overtime, bringing back bad memories of Friday night when the Knights were ultimately doomed by close losses late in matches against the Badgers.
But Rutgers took two of the three final matches heading into intermission, finished off by a 3-1 decision win from junior 157-pounder No. 17 Richie Lewis over No. 9 Brian Murphy. Lewis used a takedown with eight seconds left in the third period for the upset win and gave the Knights some momentum heading into the break as they trailed 10-9.
Right out of intermission, senior Anthony Perrotti finished off his career at the RAC with a 13-1 major decision over Garrett Sutton. With Rutgers leading for the first time in its two duals over the weekend, Bakuckas got Sutton on his back late in first period and got both shoulders on the ground with 11 seconds remaining.
Bakuckas’s pin fall was the loudest the RAC got all weekend, but it also wound up being the final cheers of the season at their home arena as Michigan made quick work of the final three bouts.
Although it came in a loss, Bakuckas, one of the few Knights who gave up late leads against Wisconsin on Friday night, is hoping his win is the start of a personal run as championship season approaches.
“It was definitely a huge win for me. As you’ve all seen, I had a couple tough losses over the past couple years. So it just felt good to finally be able to close one out and just actually pump the crowd up," he said. "I’ve been wanting to do that for so long, being able to pump up the crowd like that. It was just a huge confidence booster for me right now and I just wanna keep rollin'.”
Rutgers’ loss to Michigan marks the first time this season that it has lost consecutive dual meets. On Friday night, the Knights dug themselves a 15-6 hole against Wisconsin before winning three consecutive matches to tie the score at 15.
But Johnny Jimenez upset junior 125-pounder No. 20 Sean McCabe in a 7-4 decision to give Wisconsin the upset win.
Rutgers was defeated by an unranked opponent for the second time this season in a dual, where it was on the short side of close bouts and failed to tally any bonus points.
The Knights will now head out to Indiana to close out Big Ten competition, with two duals against No. 20 Indiana (6-4, 3-4) on Feb. 12 and Purdue (8-5, 3-4) two days later.
After two conference losses at home, both of which Rutgers had the chance to win late, the Knights are ready to move on to next weekend and get back in the win column.
“I’m really confident, but this one’s already in the past,” Lewis said on the state of his confidence. “Time to move onto Indiana and Purdue this week and continue to grind and continue to do what I do.”