After dominating Ohio State last weekend, the Gophers wrestling team has a difficult weekend ahead.
Minnesota (14-3 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) first heads to Ann Arbor to take on No. 10 Michigan, a good team, but not the biggest obstacle of the weekend.
The biggest challenge will come Sunday at the Sports Pavilion when No. 3 Penn State comes to town. Penn State, which was recently ranked No. 1, features ranked wrestlers at eight out of 10 weight classes and will likely contend for a national title.
For reference’s sake, Penn State defeated Michigan 28-13 on Sunday, Feb. 6, the last time either team wrestled.
“We’ve got to step it up a notch and be ready to go because on paper, we’ll be in a jam in these duals,” head assistant coach Joe Russell said. “We’ve got to get the upsets where we’re not supposed to win and need to take care of business. The margin for error is very little.”
Captain Mike Thorn (141), who has lost only one match on the year, will get a chance to avenge that loss Friday against Michigan’s top-ranked Kellen Russell.
“I know he’s excited for it,” Russell, the Gophers assistant coach, said. “He’s got to figure out what he’s doing and go out there and execute his style.”
He added, “Right now it’s just about him improving and getting ready [for Big Ten tournament and NCAA’s], but we’ll use this weekend as a measuring stick for where he’s at.”
For that matter, the weekend’s duals will be a good measuring stick for the entire team as well. Competing well in both duals would be a nice confidence boost prior to the Big Ten tournament, but losing in a dual format wouldn’t necessarily suggest that they can’t compete with both teams in tournament style.
The younger Thorn brother, David (133), could be a key to both duals this weekend, as the Gophers will not only be looking for bonus points wherever they’re available but also upsets to tip the scales in their favor.
Thorn has wrestled well, and multiple coaches have said he’s “right on the doorstep.” This could be the weekend when Thorn picks up the signature win that has eluded him thus far.
His opponent Friday is ranked No. 20 in the country at 133, but Russell said that’s not a huge concern.
“He can compete with anybody in the country. We’re going in there expecting David to win and the same on Sunday,” Russell said.
The team might need him to pull one upset on the weekend and may need him to record two if it hopes to stay undefeated in the Big Ten.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” Scott Glasser said of one or multiple upsets. “The skill is all there, it’s all up in the head, it’s mental. He’s had some good wins that should give him confidence. All he needs to do is take one of these big shots down and he’ll be the whole package.”
His opponent Sunday, Andrew Long, is currently ranked No. 9at 133 but wrestled in the national finals last year at 125. Russell said he lost to a freshman from Iowa a few weeks ago whom Thorn beat in freestyle this summer.
“It won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but we do expect him to go out there and compete with those guys,” Russell said.
Sonny Yohn (197), who has been out since late December, is expected to return Sunday. Yohn was expected to return last weekend, but the team opted to give him one more week of training on the mat before returning to live action.
Russell said Yohn is probably healthy enough to compete Friday, but with the travel schedule and this being his first action in more than two months — not to mention a tough Michigan wrestler at 197 — he will instead start Sunday.
With two ranked opponents on the weekend and the potential for the duals to be hanging in the balance, heavyweight Tony Nelson will need to step up in a big way.
Russell cited Nelson’s offense as the biggest problem for the heavyweight who’s seen a meteoric rise — and intermittent stalls — this season, but he said he’s worked to refine it.
“Both of these guys are elite heavyweights and he’s going to have to beat them sooner or later, so he might as well do it sooner thanlater,” Russell joked.
Russell said the team is taking both duals very seriously and intends to win both, but losing in either or both wouldn’t doom their chances of being a good tournament team.
“We’ve got to go out this weekend and at least send a message to them that when they step out on the mat with a Minnesota guy, that it’s going to be a dog fight,” Russell said.