UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In the week leading up to Saturday night's mammoth Big Ten matchup against Ohio State, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson made expectations clear from the start.
In what Sanderson described postmatch as a strange week, with an injury keeping NCAA national champion Jason Nolf out of the lineup, everyone's absolute best was the only option. From start to finish, there was simply no doubting the Nittany Lions had accepted the challenge, with an energized full-capacity crowd adding perhaps a little bit of Rec Hall magic.
"These guys knew they were going to have to step it up and we were going to have to have a big match or two like [Anthony] Cassar," Sanderson said. "Everyone in the Ohio State lineup is really good so they're tough at every weight class."
Well before Cassar brought fans to their feet in a stunning upset of Ohio State's top-ranked undefeated Kollin Moore, the electricity in the atmosphere had already been ignited.
We'll come back to Cassar.
Making his debut for the Nittany Lions at 125 pounds, Penn State's Carson Kuhn ignighted a deafening roar early, unleashing a pair of first period takedowns against Ohio State's NCAA national champion Nathan Tomasello. While Tomasello emerged with the major decision to put the Buckeyes on the board first, Kuhn's potential was particularly inspiring to Sanderson and the staff.
"Even throwing Carson Kuhn out there the first match he's had in two years, he looked good," Sanderson said. "We knew he was going to get tired, especially in that we threw him out there in his first match in that atmosphere. It's going to take a toll an anybody. I thought he wrestled well and showed some of his potential."
While Sanderson noted Kuhn could have opted to travel to an open tournament at Edinboro, he chose to instead remain in Happy Valley.
"He could have gone and got some matches some other way in his preparation but he wanted to wrestle and I think that takes a lot of courage and kind of shows you what kind of kid he is," Sanderson said.
Penn State quickly saw its deficit expand, as a quieted crowd saw the Nittany Lions enter the intermission trailing 15-5 with Bo Pipher's loss at 157 pounds following a pair of close loses by decision for Corey Keener and Nick Lee at 133 pounds and 141 pounds, respectively.
Top-ranked Zain Retherford however, highlighted in between Lee and Pipher with a 20-4 technical fall with 3:19 in riding time. Taken down by Ohio State's No. 7 Ke-Shawn Hayes to start, Retherford calmly regrouped to close out a dominant effort.
"It kind of caught me off guard," Retherford said of Hayes' early takedowns. "Especially the second one, I was kind of putting my head down for a second after the first takedown like okay, I just got taken down. The second one, he got me when I wasn't really present at the moment. So when I went out of bounds I was just thinking alright, whatever happens is irrelevant I just have to be present for the rest of this period on and that's what happened."
No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph re-energized the Nittany Lions with a 12-3 major decision with nearly two minutes in riding time against Te'Shan Campbell. Although securing some crucial bonus points, it wasn't about the point scoring for Joseph, who moved the Nittany Lions within, 15-9.
"It didn't really have to do with the team score," Joseph said. "I'm going to go out and try and score as many points as I can every time. I thought I wrestled pretty well today. I was trying to push the pace and just wrestle my style."
In back-to-back matchups featuring wrestlers all in the top three, Penn State came out on top with No. 2 Mark Hall earning a 6-4 decision against No. 3 Bo Jordan with 1:40 in riding time. It was No. 1 Bo Nickal though who moved Penn State ahead, 16-15, securing a 10-2 major decision with 2:40 seconds in riding time against No. 2 Myles Martin, helped out by a late turn for two near fall points in the last two seconds of the bout.
Rec Hall nearly erupted shortly after as unranked Cassar topped Moore to give the Penn State comeback just enough momentum.
"Once I got out there I just felt very present and calm," Cassar said. "Once I got the first takedown I knew that he wasn't getting on my legs and if I wanted to score I could."
In a match he had visualized since he arrived on campus three years ago and the culmination of both ups and downs, Cassar jumped to his feet and waved his arms to send the already screaming crowd into a full on frenzy.
"I ran out there and just in my head, I tried to stay present and do my best and I knew that if I did that, that's all the fans wanted and all the team wanted and it turned out in my favor," Cassar said. "I felt like I gave my best in that match."
At 285 pounds, Nick Nevills scored early with a takedown against Ohio State's top-ranked Kyle Snyder, falling by decision to finalize a 19-18 win for the Nittany Lions and at least a share of the 2018 Big Ten dual meet championship title.
Even as Hall lifted the trophy high into the air to a cheering crowd still in their seats and on their feet, for Sanderson, today was already on its way and it's time to get back to work.