But before Sunday's big showdown, the Lions must focus on Michigan State. They cannot afford a letdown after losing two tough matches earlier in the year to Wisconsin and Michigan. Though Michigan State is ranked only 18th, anything can happen. The Lions proved that against the lower-ranked Badgers earlier in the year at Rec Hall when they dropped a 19-15 bout. Though there is a risk of another upset, Penn State seems to stack up well against the Spartans with seven higher ranked wrestlers.
Despite Sunderland's typical "We are just focused on Michigan State right now, the team is quite eager to wrestle the Gophers. "We're very excited to have the No. 1 team coming to Rec Hall," said Eric Bradley, "but losing is still losing; we are not going to be happy with being close. Even if it is by one point, it is still losing."
The crowd will be a factor and Sunderland is encouraging PSU fans to support his program on this key weekend, saying, "that's why kids come to Penn State, to wrestle in front of big crowds and we're hoping for one on Sunday."
As far as matchups go, the Lions seem to stack up well with the Golden Gophers, too. Here's a look at some of the more intriguing matchups for Sunday, with the Penn State wrestler listed first in each weight class:
Tim Haas (13-4) vs. Travis Lang (22-10): The only bout of the night that does not feature a ranked wrestler for either team could end up deciding the match. Haas has been sharing some of the workload with freshman Brad Pataky but seems to have taken over the role after beating Pataky in wrestle-offs. According to Bigelevenwrestling.net, Haas is ranked seventh in the Big Ten while Lang is sixth. This match is a true tossup and could mean team trouble for whomever loses.
Jake Strayer (14-1) vs. Mack Reiter (21-3): This may end up being the main event of the dual meet. Jake Strayer, a redshirt freshman, is struggling to gain respect nationally; a win over the third-ranked Reiter would catapult him into that position. Many times wrestling fans get tangled up in rankings, but this is a match that could go either way -- especially if Strayer wrestles up to his potential.
James Woodall (5-2) vs. Dustin Schlatter (28-1): Facing the top-ranked wrestler in the weight class is a daunting task, however, it is one that James Woodall must take up. The key here for Woodall will be preventing his opponent from getting bonus points. Schlatter has racked up the bonus in 19 of his 28 wins.
David Erwin (18-4) vs. Matt Nagel (21-6): Ranked 11th and 10th nationally, respectively, according to Intermat, these two will contest the other swing match of the meet. David Erwin burst onto the scene in the last six weeks to garner his No. 11 ranking and this is the match that can prove true his considerable hype coming into Penn State. Count Eric Bradley as a big Dave Erwin fan: "From the first time he came in here I knew that he was good. Just from wrestling with him in the room and seeing him work, he is going to be a big threat at nationals this year." Though Erwin is probably the underdog to the more experienced senior, this match is one the Lions may need for a chance at beating the Gophers.
James Yonushonis (13-3) vs. Gabe Dretsch (21-9): A match that is a tossup with the Lions hard-working Yonushonis possibly a slight favorite. With three wins against top-11 foes, Yonushonis hopes to build on a breakout junior year with a win over another ranked foe. When Dretsch wins, he seems to win big; 12 of his 21 victories have come by major decision or better. This may bode well for the well-conditioned "Yoshi" (as his teammates refer to him) since he always seems to keep matches close with his solid fundamentals and superior conditioning.
Eric Bradley (3-0) vs. Roger Kish (24-3): This battle of top 10 wrestlers is one in which Penn State must have confidence. According to Sunderland, "Eric hasn't been on the mat much (this year), but he has continued to work and we have no doubt in his ability." Bradley says he may have even benefited from little work in the early part of the year, "I always felt like I was peaking too early in the year. Hopefully with few matches early on I will be able to peak at the right time, heading into the meat of the dual meet season and right into Big Tens and nationals."
Joel Edwards (10-2) vs. Cole Konrad (26-0): Konrad was considered the consensus No. 2 heavyweight going into a match with consensus No. 1, Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State. All seemed to be going according to plan until Konrad caught Mocco in a body lock and pinned the Cowboy to win the National Dual Meet championship for the Gophers. With 19 of Konrad's 26 wins coming by major decision or better, this is another spot where the Lion wrestler cannot afford to lose focus.
Overall the Nittany Lions should be favored in three matches: 141, 184 and 197. The Gophers are favored in three as well: 149, 157, 285. With the other four matches being tossups, anything can happen in this match.
Sunderland indicated that while there is some concern about the layoff, there are no weight issues for this weekend. "The guys stayed on their diets really well and when we weighed in last week we had absolutely no concerns. These guys are focused and know what it takes."
Sunderland was not positive Tim Haas would wrestle both matches this weekend, despite his win over Pataky in wrestleoffs. "We're really not sure right now what we want to do. We will have to play it by ear."
Bradley is confident the team is much better than the team that suffered losses to Wisconsin and Michigan. The reason for his optimism, "Dave Erwin really solidified our lineup. Ever since he came into the lineup I knew we would be more solid. Right now I don't think we have a hole in our lineup. When he is on I don't think anyone can compete with him."