After nearly three weeks off, the Nebraska wrestling squad returns to action this weekend, kicking off the tough, hard-nosed Big Ten dual season.
The Huskers will wrestle No. 12 Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, this Friday at 8 p.m. before returning back home on Sunday for a matchup against Maryland inside the Devaney Center at 2 p.m. Nebraska’s dual against the Fighting Illini will be aired on BTN.
Arguably the best wrestling conference year in and year out, one key statistic brings nothing but truth to that argument: a school from the Big Ten has claimed the past 11 NCAA team titles, as well as 20 of the past 25.
Luckily for Nebraska—ranked No. 20 in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll—it won’t face any of those championship-winning programs in the upcoming conference season. However, the Huskers will still face five top-25 teams in the next month—No. 8 Michigan, No. 12 Illinois, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 17 Rutgers and No. 24 Purdue. Three of those top-25 matchups are on the road for Nebraska.
Before we look ahead to the conference season, let’s recap the previous two months for Coach Mark Manning’s squad.
The Nebraska wrestling program didn’t have the start it anticipated through the first couple months of the 2017-18 season.
Despite strong performances at the Daktronics Open and Cliff Keen Invitational, the Huskers are just 2-2 in dual meets, with losses to No. 6 North Carolina State and North Carolina—now ranked one spot ahead of Nebraska at No. 19 in the Coaches Poll.
It is the first time in 18 seasons under Coach Mark Manning that Nebraska has two losses in its first four duals of the season.
One concern for the Huskers coming into the season was the inexperience and youth that would take over for the six seniors lost from last year’s starting lineup.
Overall as a team, Nebraska holds an 18-22 record in four duals this season. In comparison, the team was 34-6 through that number of duals last season.
Three weight classes the Huskers have struggled in this season are 125, 133 and 174 pounds. Combined, those three weight classes are just 2-9 in dual matches. The Huskers have yet to get a dual victory at 133.
A common issue for Nebraska in its two dual losses was winning close matches. In eight matches decided by two points or less, the Huskers lost six of them. In their two dual victories, the Huskers were 3-1 in those close matches.
Nebraska flashed a couple strong points from their young lineup with fast starts from sophomore transfer Isaiah White and redshirt freshman Taylor Venz.
Including the Daktronics Open and Cliff Keen Invitational, each wrestler has put together a team-high 13 victories, with five coming against ranked opponents.
White, ranked No. 10 at 165 pounds in the InterMat poll, was a NCAA Division II National Champion at Notre Dame College last season.
As for Venz, ranked No. 6 at 184 pounds, he opened his first season in the Nebraska starting lineup unranked. Venz surged into the rankings with 11 straight bonus-point victories—seven falls, three technical falls and one major decision.
Looking ahead again at the upcoming Big Ten dual season, the Huskers will have plenty of chances to prove they can compete with the top wrestlers in the country. Eight of Nebraska’s ten regular starters could face at least three ranked wrestlers in their respective classes during the conference duals.
Sophomore Kris Williams (7-3), currently unranked at 125 pounds, could face as many as six.
Victories against ranked foes can help wrestlers receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if they do not qualify for an automatic bid.
The Huskers will need to make the most of their opportunities this conference season in hopes of getting a favorable seed at the Big Ten Championships and perhaps a spot at the national tournament in March.