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Tonight’s dual a rare toss-up between Penn State, Michigan in wrestling

In his 12-plus seasons as coach, Cael Sanderson has rarely approached a dual meet in which the outcome was considered a toss-up, let alone with the Nittany Lions as an underdog.

Tonight might be one of those rare times.

No. 1 Penn State (11-0, 3-0 Big Ten) wrestles No. 3 Michigan (5-0, 1-0) at 6 p.m. and the Wolverines easily present the biggest challenge, thus far, of this season.

Nine of 10 Michigan wrestlers are ranked among the top 16 at their weight, seven among the top eight, including one at No. 1, two at No. 2 and one at No. 4. Two of them — 141-pounder Stevan Micic and 184-pounder Myles Amine — wrestled in the 2020 Olympic Games. Amine claimed bronze.

“Everyone knows Michigan’s one of the very best teams in the country. I mean, that’s no secret,” Sanderson said earlier this week.

“But I feel like every weekend’s a test. I mean, the test is just are we making progress as we move along? And are the individuals making progress? This is obviously a really, really a good team and just a very well-coached team. They’ve got two Olympians in their lineup. That might be a record, I don’t know, but it’s kind of neat. Tough, tough, tough kids. So, yeah, we’re excited about the opportunity to compete see where we’re at.”

Penn State will counter with nine ranked wrestlers of its own, four at the top of their weights, one ranked second and another ranked fourth.

Here are the expected matchups, with Penn State wrestlers listed first, in what could be an epic dual meet scheduled for a live national broadcast on the Big Ten Network:

• 125: No. 7 Drew Hildebrandt vs. No. 1 Nick Suriano

• 133: No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young vs. No. 8 Dylan Ragusin

• 141: No. 1 Nick Lee vs. No. 4 Stevan Micic

• 149: No. 19 Beau Bartlett vs. Cole Mattin

• 157: Tony Negron vs. No. 15 Will Lewan

• 165: No. 16 Brady Berge vs. No. 10 Cameron Amine

• 174: No. 1 Carter Starocci vs. No. 6 Logan Massa

• 184: No. 1 Aaron Brooks vs. No. 2 Myles Amine

• 197: No. 2 Max Dean vs. No. 8 Patrick Brucki

• 285: No. 4 Greg Kerkvliet vs. No. 2 Mason Parris

To try to handicap a match with so many highly ranked wrestlers is probably a fool’s errand. However, many fans and pundits predict a 5-5 split. If that’s the case, bonus points will be crucial.

A key bout will come at 149, where Bartlett takes on Wolverine backup Cole Mattin, who is listed on the official Michigan release instead of No. 16 Kanen Storr. Bartlett beat Mattin, 8-4, in an extra match during the dual meet last February. The match could come down to heavyweight, where Kerkvliet will take on Parris.

At least one Nittany Lion thinks his team will rise to the challenge.

“I think it’s exciting. You guys stated how we were down early at halftime (against Rutgers). I think this can be a test where we have to not let that happen and kind of go after these guys from the start,” Starocci said.

“It’s a good test. They have a really good team, but I think those guys break. I don’t think they’re impressive. I think they’re just kind of basic. They’ve got some new coaches but we have the best coaches and we’re the best team. We keep learning. We keep growing. So, I mean, I’m not really focused on the opponent. We’re kind of just going out there and taking care of business.”

This will be the first of two consecutive Fridays in which Penn State will face daunting road challenges. Next Friday, the Nittany Lions take on No. 2 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. And while the coaches and wrestlers want to win every competition, they know these tests are steppingstones on the way to the ultimate prize in March.

“This is like the gauntlet part of the season. It’s fun getting to wrestle these guys. I’ve had really good opponents the last few weeks and it’s the same thing against Michigan. Same outlook. Same mindset,” Brooks said.

“My overall outlook is these guys are in my weight class. I’ve got to wrestle them in Big Ten dual season, Big Ten Championships and NCAAs. I’m definitely not just thinking about now. I’ve got to wrestle them a bunch of times. I want to put that mindset out there that hopefully they don’t want to wrestle me again. I want to wrestle hard and wrestle at a high pace. I want to make it not really fun for them.”

Sanderson emphasized the importance of duals like this in the overall arc of the season.

“I think these next couple weekends will be good for our team, for team bonding. Obviously very competitive teams that we’re going to be battling,” he said.

“That’s why we do this. That’s why you put the time and the effort in, for the big matches and the tough opponents. We’re excited about it. Just like every other year, we’re just trying to get better as the weeks move long so we can be ready to compete in March.”

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