In its last trip to Pennsylvania, the Oklahoma State wrestling team suffered its worst loss of the season.
Since the 19-18 setback at Pitt on Jan. 19, No. 7 OSU has become one of the hottest teams in the country with four straight wins by at least 20 points.
Now, in its return trip to the Keystone State, OSU will get a chance to prove just how far it has come with a 1 p.m. dual at No. 2 Penn State on Sunday. The Nittany Lions have dominated college wrestling recently, winning three consecutive national titles.
“This is the toughest matchup for us this season,” said OSU coach John Smith. “We just need to take the momentum that we've built up and make sure we continue to get better as we go into these big matches. If we get better than what we've been wrestling, we're going to have a great opportunity (to beat Penn State).”
“There's definitely a difference in the team (over the last three weeks). I'd say just the level of intensity I'm finally getting. That's the difference now.”
Of the 10 matches, nine could potentially pit wrestlers ranked in the top 20 against each other. The marquee matchups are headlined by No. 3 Alex Dieringer (OSU) vs. No. 6 Dylan Alton at 157 pounds, No. 5 Tyler Caldwell (OSU) vs. No. 1 David Taylor at 165 pounds, and No. 2 Chris Perry (OSU) vs. No. 4 Matt Brown at 174 pounds.
Upsets have been a trend in Division I wrestling this season, but until last Sunday's loss at Minnesota, Penn State (13-1) had shown no signs of being beatable. The Nittany Lions had won each their first 13 duals by at least 10 points before falling, 18-17, to the Golden Gophers.
Smith says he wasn't surprised to see Minnesota take down Penn State. After the Cowboys' 16-15 loss to now-No. 1 Minnesota earlier this season, Smith told his team the Golden Gophers probably had the best team in the country.
Because of OSU's schedule, Smith would know as well as anyone who has the nation's best team. OSU (8-4) is the only team outside the Big Ten to face Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa, who have been mainstays in the top three this season.
The difficult schedule is expected to help ready OSU for the NCAA Championships, which will be March 20-22 in Oklahoma City. That's when the Cowboys will look to stop Penn State from joining them and Iowa as the only programs to win four straight titles.
“We're still a long ways away,” Smith said. “I don't think we're really in the championship picture at this time. We've got guys ranked anywhere from 12 to 20. You don't win championships that way, but I do see the progress and a team that's improving.”
If the improvement continues with a win on Sunday, OSU will definitely be considered a serious contender in March.