Rutgers travels to Indiana seeking 2 conference dual wins
In both of its conference duals at the Rutgers Athletic Center last weekend, the Rutgers wrestling team had a chance to close out late and steal a victory.
On Feb. 5, the Scarlet Knights were tied with Wisconsin 15-15 heading into the final bout, where they would be sending junior No. 20 125-pounder Sean McCabe to face Johnny Jimenez.
Two days later, the Knights used a 13-point run to take a 16-10 lead over then-No. 8 Michigan through seven individual matches.
But when Rutgers was just one decision win away from nailing down victories in each dual — while also not surrendering any bonus points against Michigan — the toughest conference in college wrestling reared its head.
The Knights faltered at the tail end of both duals falling to the Badgers (2-6, 1-5), 18-15, and the Wolverines (12-2, 7-1), 27-16, adding a second upset loss to an unranked foe to their resume and missing out on the opportunity of picking up their second win against a top-10 opponent.
Rutgers’ (13-5, 3-4) first losing streak of the season dropped them to No. 14 in the USA Today / NWCA Coaches Poll, its lowest ranking in the poll since it was slotted at the same spot 10 weeks ago.
“Even if McCabe wins that match and we win the dual, I don’t think our staff is gonna be happy with the way we wrestled. (Wiconsin’s) a team that’s gonna place 25th at the NCAAs. We have a much better team than that,” said associate head coach Donny Pritzlaff. “Coming down to the end of the match (against Michigan), I thought ... we (could have) performed a little better."
A weak point for Rutgers in both of its losses was failing to come out on top of close individual bouts.
In their dual against Wisconsin, the Knights lost three matches they either had the lead or were tied with under a minute remaining in the third period. These three losses produced 12 of the Badgers’ 15 points as they built a 9-point lead through six matches.
Rutgers would go on to tie the dual at 15 after three consecutive decision wins, but had it won at least one of the three tight matches earlier on, the upset loss would have been avoided.
While the 17-straight points the Wolverines scored in the final three matches stood out the most, the Knights found themselves on the short side of toss-up matches yet again to begin the dual.
McCabe lost his bout to Conor Youtsey in sudden-victory overtime. Then, in the following match, redshirt freshman 133-pounder Anthony Giraldo, then ranked No. 17, lost to Rossi Bruno in the tiebreaker portion of overtime to put the Knights at an early 6-0 disadvantage.
Rutgers' failure to close out was due to not being aggressive enough, according to head coach Scott Goodale.
The Knights need to return to the pace-pushing style of wrestling that scored them a lot of points and ultimately propelled them to be as high as the No. 6 team in the land, one of Goodale’s two All-Americans said.
“We gotta flip the switch and get back to that aggressive style of attacking that we had in the beginning of the year,” said senior 165-pounder Anthony Perrotti. “Beginning of the year, you saw a lot of takedowns, lot of back points and now you’re not really seeing a lot of back points. When you’re getting into a close (match), back points are gonna win … tough weekend, it happens. It’s the Big Ten.”
Although the Knights have now dropped three of its last four conference duals, they still have the opportunity to finish the season with a winning record in the daunting Big Ten. As is always the preface in Big Ten competition, it won’t be a simple feat to conquer.
This weekend, Rutgers will head out to the Hoosier State for a pair of duals to close out regular season conference competition.
On Friday, the Knights will hit the mat against Indiana (6-5, 3-5) in Bloomington. Two days later, they will travel two hours north by bus to West Lafayette for a 1 p.m. dual with No. 23 Purdue (8-5, 3-4) on the Big Ten Network.
During its inaugural season in the Big Ten, Rutgers did not face either program.
The Hoosiers contain two ranked grapplers in their lineup in No. 19 Elijah Oliver at 125 pounds and No. 11 Nate Jackson at 174 pounds. McCabe and junior Phillip Bakuckas will be tasked with trying to keep the Hoosiers’ top-two grapplers from putting points on the board.
For the second consecutive week, No. 8 Perrotti will competing in the highlight match of the day. After ultimately falling short against undefeated No. 3 Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin last week, the Roseland, New Jersey, native will draw Purdue's lone ranked wrestler in No. 7 Chad Welch.
While Indiana and the Boilermakers don’t boast intimidating records or have a high number of ranked wrestlers, both have floated around the bottom third of the national rankings this season.
The two in-state rivals met last weekend with Purdue taking six individual bouts in an 18-14 win.
With championship season less than a month away, this is the time of year grapplers want to be wrestling their best at. After this weekend, Rutgers has only two duals remaining on the season slate, so its matchups against Indiana and Purdue will be key in building momentum and confidence as it swiftly approaches the Big Ten and National Championships.
“I think the team is more excited than ever. Again, this is a chance for us to prove ourselves,” said sophomore 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina. “With every low point, there’s gonna come a high point again and that’s gonna be this weekend and into next weekend into the Big Tens. Hopefully during the Nationals as well.”