After spending 40 days away from the Pavilion, the Gophers return home on Friday night to host the nation’s second-ranked team and the defending national champions from Penn State. The match will be the third Big Ten dual for Minnesota, which currently sits atop the Big Ten standings with a 2-0 mark following a sweep through Michigan in mid-December. Meanwhile, Friday will be the first conference dual for the Nittany Lions this season and the first of two stiff tests this weekend, as the team will travel further west to take on Nebraska on Sunday.
Friday night’s match starts at 7 p.m. Central at the Sports Pavilion. Tickets are available at MyGopherSports.com.
Fans who can’t be there in person will be able to stream the action live on BTN Plus, follow live stats on TrackWrestling.com or keep tabs on the latest updates by following Gopher Wrestling on Twitter (@GopherWrestling).
Minnesota (3-1, 2-0) returns to dual competition after a strong showing at the Southern Scuffle last weekend. Seven Gophers placed in the event, helping the team post its best overall performance in the event since 2014. Ethan Lizak captured the 125-pound title, while both Brett Pfarr and Michael Kroells finished as runners-up at their weights. Prior to the Scuffle, the Gophers muscled through a Michigan road trip to open their Big Ten season in early December. After a 20-17 victory in East Lansing on a Friday, Minnesota rolled into Ann Arbor and upset Michigan, 22-18. Prior to that trip, Minnesota had finished a mid-November homstead home split, defeating No. 20 South Dakota State and falling to No. 1 Oklahoma State.
Noticeably absent from the Southern Scuffle field, minus a couple unattached competitors, was Penn State (4-0, 0-0). The Nittany Lions were the event’s five-time defending champions, but opted to sit out this season’s tournament. Penn State last wrestled on Dec. 11, the same day Minnesota beat Michigan. That day, the Lions posted their second shutout of the season in a 46-0 drubbing of Binghampton. The other goose egg came in the season opener, a 45-0 win over Army. Penn State also holds dual wins over ranked opponents Stanford (36-6) and Lehigh (30-10). Friday’s match will be the Big Ten opener for Penn State.
There are plenty of potentially great matches on Friday’s bout card – as many as seven will pit ranked wrestlers against each other – but none can quite match the star power of the 125-pound contest between No. 3 Nick Suriano and No. 6 Ethan Lizak. Suriano, a true freshman, is 8-0 this season after finishing a 159-0 high school career. Lizak returned to Minnesota’s lineup last weekend and dominating the Southern Scuffle field, majoring three top-12 opponents.
Last Time Around
In January 2015, true freshman Ethan Lizak took the mat as an attached competitor for the first time his career, in his home state, against the Nittany Lions. While he lost that night, his team came out victorious. By taking four of the first five – and five of the first seven – matches, the Gophers built an 11-point lead Penn State was unable to overcome. Major decisions from Chris Dardanes and Dylan Ness provided critical bonus points as the Gophers edged the Nittany Lions, 17-16. Along with Lizak, the only other current Gophers who wrestled that evening are Brett Pfarr (who defeated Matt McCutcheon 11-5 when both were at 184) and Michael Kroells, who fell 3-1 to Jimmy Lawson. From Penn State, potential returners from the dual two years ago include McCutcheon, Jimmy Gulibon and Kade Moss.
Rank and File
As many as 17 ranked wrestlers will step on the mat Friday night, providing the possibility of up to seven ranked-versus-ranked matches. Some of the highlights among that collection of bouts includes Lizak versus Suriano, as well as top-10 tilts at 157 pounds between No. 9 Jake Short and No. 1 Jason Nolf and at heavyweight between No. 8 Michael Kroells and No. 5 Nick Nevills. Another intriguing matchup comes at 197, where No. 2 Brett Pfarr takes on No. 11 Matt McCutcheon, a rematch of the 184-pound match from the last time these two teams met head-to-head.
Minnesota holds a 16-6-1 edge in its series with Penn State. The Nittany Lions built an early 6-4 lead against the Gophers but have not won a dual against the Maroon and Gold since February 1998. Since then, Minnesota has gone 13 straight without defeat – 12 wins and a draw (2010-11).
There No Place Like Home
Friday night will be the Gophers’ first match in the Twin Cities since Nov. 29 against top-ranked Oklahoma State. Along with No. 20 South Dakota State, a match Minnesota won in mid-December, the Gophers will host seven teams this season, all ranked in the top-20. Still on the schedule are No. 2 Penn State, No. 3 Iowa, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 17 Wisconsin. The Gophers’ seven home opponents had a winning percentage of .779 (81-23) last season.
Minnesota’s 13-match unbeaten streak against Penn State includes a shared quirk between the two programs, the last official tie in a dual meet for both schools. That came in the 2010-11 season. Current volunteer assistant coach Zach Sanders staked Minnesota to a 3-0 lead by winning the night’s opening match at 125 pounds and a back-and-forth battle assumed, one in which there were four lead changes and ultimately, an 18-18 draw.