IOWA CITY – It is easy to take Matt McDonough for granted.
Fans have become used to the University of Iowa’s top-ranked 125-pound senior igniting the Hawkeyes powder keg in wrestling duals. You don’t rack up 113 career wins, 39 career pins and two NCAA titles without providing a spark or two.
McDonough’s performance will be as important than ever when the third-ranked Hawkeyes (15-1, 5-0) host No. 1 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) in a Big Ten dual Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, beginning at 8:04 p.m. He is expected to face second-ranked Nico Megaludis in a rematch of last year’s 125-pound national championship bout.
McDonough (13-0) expects Megaludis (16-1) to be aggressive and not hold anything back just like their two meetings last year, including a 3-1 overtime win by McDonough in Penn State’s 22-12 victory in State College, Pa.
“I had two matches against him and both of them were battles,” McDonough said. “I don’t expect it to be any different.”
McDonough’s recent results haven’t been indicative of his career, consisting 79 bonus-point wins with 33 major decisions and seven technical falls. He is five falls away from tying Chuck Yagla for 10th on Hawkeyes’ all-time pin list.
He has recorded five straight decisions, which is his longest streak as an Iowa starter without at least a major decision. He is still capable of fireworks.
“I sure hope so,” McDonough said. “I’m going out there and trying everything I can to get the dual started off on the right note, but not only that (but) start every single match and continue my season on the right note.”
He said the key is to wrestle at a high pace and being stingy surrendering point, putting a 41-match win streak on the line.
“Some of my matches I haven’t been able to get to the guy like people may think, but that’s not what the problem is,” McDonough said. “The problem is moving forward and building each and every match and I think I’ve done that so far. It’s still a work in progress every single day.”
McDonough, 133-pounder Tony Ramos and Mark Ballweg at 141 are favored on paper. They could be important to setting the tone for the dual. It won’t matter where those matches fall in the dual, according to Iowa coach Tom Brands.
“Depending on how I am as a competitor, when it’s my turn to step on the mat it doesn’t matter,” Brands said. “Those matches are important regardless of where you place them in the dual meet.”
The three are a combined 44-1 this season, posting a 13-1 mark against ranked foes. Ballweg (15-1) is coming off a big 3-1 win against Minnesota’s Nick Dardanes.
“Ballweg is wrestling well,” Brands said. “I think he knows what he wants to do. He is confident.”
The Hawkeyes senior is 40-4 in his career at 141. He has eight major decisions, a technical fall and pin against unranked foes and is expected to face unranked Bryan Pearsall. Ballweg echoed Brands sentiments.
“I probably am wrestling the best I have maybe my entire wrestling career,” Ballweg said. “I’m feeling confident.”
The Hawkeyes will need a complete team effort. Iowa lost the last four matches in a 16-15 win on criteria over highly-ranked Minnesota and lost the last five matches against No. 2 Oklahoma State. They need some vital wins, especially at 174 pounds when Iowa’s Mike Evans (11-2) and Matt Brown (17-2) wrestle. Both are ranked as high as fourth in national polls.
“I think for our heavier weights, and our whole team, it’s important to come out and be ready, because if we’re not you’ve seen some of the scores they’ve put up on teams once they get to rolling,” Iowa 165-pounder Nick Moore said. “It can be hard to stop them, so I think our whole team needs to be ready to step out on the mat.”
Moore earned Wrestler of the Week honors from the Big Ten and themat.com for a convincing win over a ranked foe Saturday. Now, he has a huge undertaking, trying to slow down second-ranked and defending NCAA champion David Taylor. Even if he doesn’t pull out a win, limiting possible bonus points will be key for both teams in all matches.
“I have to go out there and fight for seven, eight or nine minutes or however long it takes,” Moore said. “I just have to wrestle the whole time without fear.”
The Hawkeyes are 6-1 against ranked teams and the last time they faced a top-ranked team they beat Penn State, 22-13, in 2011 at State College, Pa. The last time Iowa hosted Penn State in 2009, Cael Sanderson’s first season has Nittany Lions head coach, and won 29-6.
This is Iowa’s first home dual since 29-9 win over Purdue on Jan. 6. Less than 1,300 tickets remained available to the public as of Thursday morning, according to the UI. Brands said being home can be an advantage, but the wrestlers’ performance have to give them a reason to be excited and make a difference.
“Regardless of where it is, you have to get ready,” Brands said. “There has to be energy in your wrestling. Being at home is good for us.”
“Let’s give them some entertainment. Let’s give them some top-dollar entertainment.”
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