CHAMPAIGN — It wasn’t the setup Illinois wrestling coach Jim Heffernan hoped for against Penn State. On Friday night, the No. 1 Nittany Lions lost a close dual at Iowa.
“That’s the way it is,” Heffernan said. “We have easily the most difficult schedule in the country, the way it plays out. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wrestle at your best. We didn’t do that. To me, that’s an issue.”
Two periods into Sunday’s first match, it looked like it was going to work out for the Illini. At 125 pounds, Jesse Delgado led Penn State’s Nico Megaludis 3-1. Then, Delgado changed his style. And got pinned with 15 seconds left.
“Jesse was the aggressive guy the whole match,” Heffernan said. “The last minute, he shut down and quit being aggressive and gave the guy one chance. He put himself in a situation by quitting being aggressive.
“It was the whole match. The kid didn’t have a chance to score on him until 20 seconds left.”
Scoring wasn’t a problem the rest of the dual for the Nittany Lions, who rolled to a 37-0 win.
“They’re really good,” Heffernan said of the Nittany Lions. “But I think 125 we gave it away, 133 we didn’t do enough until the last two minutes, 141 we didn’t do enough, 149 we made one bad decision.
“A couple of our guys looked like they didn’t think they could win until the last minute and started pushing the pace a little harder. That’s what is disappointing to me.”
Penn State got its second pin at 184 pounds from No. 1 Ed Ruth. He needed 47 seconds to stop Tony Dallago.
Heffernan’s team will be tested again in its next match Friday against Iowa, which should move to No. 1 in the polls.
“Previous No. 1 is leaving the gym and a new No. 1 is coming in Friday,” Heffernan said. “Iowa beat these guys at the end of the matches. It’s a very similar team. Penn State’s probably got more talent. Iowa’s probably got more toughness. They are both great teams.”
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said his two-time defending national champions didn’t need any extra motivation Sunday. Not after Friday’s loss.
“They want to win every match,” Sanderson said. “Yeah, we’re disappointed. You’ve got to keep hustling, keep fighting and work toward March.”
Sanderson spent about 30 minutes after Sunday’s match signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. Just like he does at every stop. The 2004 Olympic champion was a four-time NCAA winner and never lost a match while at Iowa State. He is considered one of the greatest amateur wrestlers in U.S. history.
The coach will be back with the Nittany Lions in March for the Big Ten meet, which is being held at the Assembly Hall.
“This is an important place for us,” Sanderson said.