Ohio State was in a bit of a rut after their Feb. 4 dual at Penn State. The Buckeyes had just lost three out of four matches, with the only win coming against an inferior Maryland squad. TTUN and Penn State had taken them down easily (29-8, 32-7), and the rough patch put a screeching halt to what had been a fantastic start to the 2021-22 season.
Rather than hang their heads, Tom Ryan’s squad worked their tails off in the gym and continued to prepare for the rest of the Big Ten slate. After all, there’s absolutely no shame in losing to Penn State, Iowa, and TTUN... they are ranked first, second, and third in the country respectively.
But Rutgers and Minnesota (OSU’s next two opponents) were not going to feel bad for the Buckeyes. The Scarlet Knights and Golden Gophers are both two top-20 programs in their own right, and they were both getting the Buckeyes at home. The only “reprieve” on Ohio State’s schedule was a regular-season finale against Indiana.
Let’s take a look at how the team closed it out.
At Rutgers – Feb. 6
Ohio State had to earn every bit of this one against a tough Rutgers squad. The Scarlet Knights have really come on over the last handful of years, with at least two wrestlers being named as All-Americans in each of the last five seasons; if they were not already, they should be considered a top-5 Big Ten program.
And despite their own struggles in mid-to-late January (three straight road losses), Rutgers finished the regular season 14th in the NCAA rankings. They are led by Sebastian Rivera and John Poznanski, who both finished fourth in their weight classes at the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships.
The Buckeyes jumped out to a quick lead thanks to a victory from Malik Heinselman at 125. However, the Knights took the next two matches (133, 141) – including a dominant major decision by Rivera – and Mike Van Brill gave Ohio State’s national title contender, Sammy Sasso, a scare at 149.
Rutgers then won two more, giving them four of the first six individual matches. They led 14-6, with a couple of trump cards yet to be played. Rutgers’ Poznanski and Greg Bulsak are top-10 guys at 184 and 197 respectively, so the outlook was looking rather grim for OSU.
Ethan Smith — who is criminally underrated — scored a major decision in his 174 match, setting the stage for two stunners pulled off by the Buckeyes. Rocky Jordan and Gavin Hoffman defeated Poznanski and Bulsak in back-to-back matches, giving OSU a 16-14 edge going into the heavyweight battle.
Tate Orndorff took down Boone McDermott, who is one of the coolest looking individuals ever, and the Buckeyes completed the comeback with 13 straight points. Credit to Jordan and Hoffman for saving this match for the Scarlet and Gray.
At Minnesota – Feb. 11
At the time, this was a contest between No. 8 and No. 14, with Ohio State owning the higher ranking. Minnesota faced a difficult Big Ten schedule this year, leading to a 3-3 start in the conference, before surprisingly dropped a dual to Purdue.
The Gophers’ finale was a chance for them to claw back to .500 and close out their regular season with a quality win. Instead, the Buckeyes wrestled arguably their best dual of the season (against a quality opponent), and jumped out to a huge lead before dropping a few matches late. No harm, no foul — especially when one of those losses was to Olympic Gold Medalist and WWE-signee, Gable Stevenson.
Heinselman once again kicked things off with a win. This victory put him at 15-3 for the season, and on his way to what is likely a fourth consecutive NCAA appearance. Brady Koontz lost his match at 133, before Dylan D’Emilio scored an exciting and unexpected pin over 15th-ranked Golden Gopher, Jake Bergeland. D’Emilio’s pin set the tone for the next handful of matches, which Ohio State won with relative ease. Sasso, Carson Kharchla, and Smith all continued their winning ways, eventually building a 24-3 lead for the Buckeyes.
The score was affected by Minnesota’s All-American Brayton Lee getting injured 17 seconds into the 157 match, which is a bummer for college wrestling fans. He may have competed for a NCAA title in March.
OSU lost the last three matches, but the damage had already been done. By the time Stevenson scored a tech fall over Orndorff, fans and fellow competitors were only interested in how dominant the Olympian would be (the answer: very). The Buckeyes won the match 24-14, securing at least a .500 record in-conference.
Home vs. Indiana – Feb. 13
This Senior Night dual was nearly a Valentine’s Day Massacre. Indiana is one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, so no big surprises here. The Hoosiers may get lucky with one NCAA qualifier in Brock Hudkins, and he would go on to win their only match (at 133).
Ohio State swept the rest, including four major decisions and a pin by Kaleb Romero at 184. The Buckeyes took this one by a score of 34-3, and finished the Big Ten season with a record of 5-3; not bad for a “rebuilding year.”
The Buckeyes now get a few weeks to gear up for the best conference tournament in wrestling. Six of the top ten teams in the current NCAA rankings compete in the Big Ten, and another five are ranked inside the top-25.
Nothing about this tournament will be easy for Ohio State, and they could very well finish fourth, fifth, or sixth. That being said, there are a handful of individuals wrestling really well right now (Heinselman, Sasso, Kharchla, Romero, to name a few), and we’ve seen guys like Jordan and Hoffman pull off big upsets. It will be a tall, tall mountain to climb, but here’s hoping the Buckeyes can claim their first Big Ten title since the 2017-18 season.