No. 21 wrestling squad aims to upset No. 3 Ohio State

Before last year, the Illinois wrestling team held a 10-match win streak on the Buckeyes that dated all the way back to 1995. That streak was snapped last season, when then-No. 6 Ohio State defeated the Illini, 26-13.

The Illini (8-6, 3-3 Big Ten) will look to start another streak Friday, as the Buckeyes visit Huff Hall. However, this will be no easy task, as Ohio State comes in ranked No. 3, sporting a 16-1 overall record and a 5-0 conference mark.

But the impressive record isn’t scaring the Illini, who are coming off of an upset of No. 13 Wisconsin on Sunday.

“I think we match up fairly well,” sophomore Jordan Blanton said. “Ten different guys get to go out and wrestle for seven minutes, wrestle hard and put all their training and everything they’ve done to the test.”

Head coach Jim Heffernan echoed those sentiments, saying it would take a total effort to take down the conference foe.

“All 10 of (the matches) are big matches,” Heffernan said. “All 10 of them are going to be hard. They got a solid lineup with a lot of experience, so we don’t have much margin for error in any match.”

The Buckeyes present a difficult challenge for the Illini, as their probable starters include six wrestlers ranked in the top 20. The lineup is anchored by Reece Humphrey at 141 pounds and Lance Palmer at 149 pounds. The pair are a combined 47-3 on the season, and both are ranked No. 2 in their weight class. Ohio State also features No. 6 Colt Sponseller at 165 pounds, No. 11 Dave Rella at 174 pounds and No. 7 Mike Pucillo at 184 pounds. Nikko Traggas is ranked No. 20 at 125 pounds.

However, it would seem as if the Illini could match up favorably, as four of the their five ranked wrestlers will be squaring off against ranked opponents. No. 2 John Dergo will likely square off against Pucillo, whom he defeated 7-5 earlier this season at the Las Vegas Invitational and owns a 2-1 career record against.

“I think (Pucillo) is somebody Dergo is looking forward to wrestling,” Heffernan said. “(Pucillo) is good. He’s a couple-time national finalist, he’s a national champ … It’s a big match.”

Another key bout could take place at 157 pounds, where senior Clint Arlis will be pitted against either Tony Jameson or Sean Nemec. Despite missing time with an injury, Arlis has compiled an 11-3 mark on the season. But even more impressive is how Arlis has won, with six of his victories coming by way of a major decision or technical fall.

Bonus points will be important if the Illini hope to put together their third winning streak this season and first since Jan. 8. That inconsistency made Heffernan wary of any momentum the team might have from its recent upset.

“I don’t know that we have momentum,” Heffernan said. “We’ve been win one, lose one for the last three weeks, so I don’t know that you really gain much momentum doing that … We haven’t had a long enough streak yet to know if we’re gonna have (any momentum).”

And while the win may or may not have given the team momentum, it has certainly provided it a confidence boost.

“Wisconsin is a good team, and they got a lot of good kids on the team,” junior Ryan Prater said. “That’s what we feel we should have been wrestling, and that’s what we feel we should have been ranked the whole time.”