Rutgers splits Michigan weekend, falling to Wolverines before toppling Spartans
Barriers — most would say — are there to be broken, but for the Rutgers wrestling team, smashing through the upper tier of Big Ten competition has always been a struggle.
Permeating the minds of the grapplers as they departed for Michigan were the dual meets that got away.
It was two months prior that the then-No. 8 Cornell rocked the Scarlet Knights to a tune of 28-10 at the “Grapple at the Garden” at Madison Square Garden (MSG), rounding out an event that should have been Rutgers’ for the taking.
And the program is less than a month removed from an uncharacteristically poor performance in State College, Pennsylvania, where the No. 2 Nittany Lions laid waste to the Knights, 37-6.
“We got our butts handed to us, and it was good to see that,” said head coach Scott Goodale. “It was good to be in that environment, sometimes it’s good to get that out of the way in January.”
But as January gets cast aside and Rutgers returns home after a disappointing trip to the Great Lake State, the clock ticks on a potentially program-defining season. Whether the team will emerge among the Iowas, Penn States and Ohio States of the world is anybody’s guess.
The weekend did not do much to wring hope into the hearts of those who are faithful to the Knights. The No. 11 Rutgers (10-3, 4-2) cruised into Friday’s dual meet against No. 15 Michigan (7-4, 3-4) only to be outlasted, 19-13, by a Wolverine side on the rise in the conference.
Two days later, the Knights marginally redeemed themselves, putting off a scare from Michigan State (4-9, 1-6) who held a lead six bouts in. The heavy-hitting Knights came to play in the final stretch though, as the team sealed off the last four matches to take the meet, 24-12.
While it was an exceptional weekend for the upper weight classes, with grapplers like junior heavyweight Razohnn Gross and junior 184-pounder Nicholas Gravina nabbing two decisions each, much of the problem lied within the early divisions.
Perhaps no one values the first few weight classes more than Goodale, who has emphasized the importance of getting out early constantly throughout the season.
“That gives momentum, that gives you energy, that gives you a lot,” Goodale said.
While No. 6 Anthony Ashnault is almost always going to produce at the 141-pound slot, his predecessors have shifted plenty throughout the first half of the season.
Freshman 125-pounder Brandon Paetzell and junior 133-pounder Scott DelVecchio have assumed the roles in the last few weeks after strong victories against No. 12 Illinois and Purdue at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
But faced with their most trying tests yet, Paetzell and DelVecchio could not get the job done.
Amassing a combined 5 points between both of them across both events, Paetzell lost to No. 10 Conor Youtsey of Michigan via decision while getting pinned by Logan Griffin of Michigan State in the third period.
DelVecchio only fared slightly better, leaving Ann Arbor on the other end of a 10-3 decision to No. 7 Stevan Micic before succumbing to Austin Eicher in East Lansing.
It’s questions abound for Goodale and his staff, who fiddled with positions all weekend to no avail. The 165-pound spot, tossing and turning throughout the season, found renters this weekend in Dylan Painton and Anthony Pafumi, who were both unable to get their hands raised at the end.
Though there is certainly some instability among the ranks heading into the tail end of the regular season, a few have cemented their places in stone.
Those like Ashnault, Gravina and No. 14 Ken Theobold, who all returned back to New Brunswick with a double-decision weekend, will fuel the Knights into a daunting meet against No. 4 Ohio State, one that was scheduled to take place earlier in the month but was postponed due to inclement weather.
Regardless, three meets remain for Rutgers, the toughest being that in Columbus, Ohio and the Knights will need to solidify their spots to pose any threat approaching the Big Ten Championships. It’s a given that Ashnault, Gravina and Theobold will thrust themselves into the national championships and possibly as All-Americans.
But in order for Rutgers to turn some heads in the Big Ten, all fronts need to be settled.