2013 NCAA Division I Quarterfinals Analysis
By Andy Vogel
Head Wrestling Coach, Gettysburg College
Takedown data is available at http://bit.ly/1bQzkqu
I recently watched all 40 of the quarterfinal matches from the most recent NCAA Division I Championships. I wanted to know if there were any trends that I could identify while also learning more about how the best wrestlers score and win. I recorded every takedown and use that data plus other observations to come up with the following ten points. They provide an interesting lens for watching high level wrestling as the 2013-2014 season approaches.
1. The single leg takedown is still supreme
Of the 76 takedowns in the quarterfinals, nearly half were some sort of head inside single leg attack. There were variations on this theme, but if you include straight single legs, inside reach attacks, ankle picks, snatch singles where the attacker never touches a knee, and low singles, you can account for 46 percent of the takedowns in those 40 matches. If you add in reattack single legs where a go-behind attempt becomes a single leg, more than half of all takedowns came from what may be the most basic technique in wrestling, and the setups used were nothing exotic either. It is a simplification to say it, but the fact that Jesse Delgado of Illinois seems to be able to not only get in on a single leg, but also finish, against nearly everyone he wrestles has as much as anything to do with his 125 lbs. national championship this March. It takes more than just getting the leg, however, as can be seen in the next point.
2. Wrestlers must be able to finish without getting to their feet
Obviously, picking up the opponent’s leg makes for the easiest finishes, but getting to that position is so difficult that a successful wrestler must be able to finish down on the mat. This is where Delgado excels. Some of his shots leave him in a less than desirable position underneath, but he has developed the ability to get into a better position and score with regularity. Even when wrestlers are in good position, the defense has become so good at high levels and the pressure so great from the defender that finishing on the mat is almost a prerequisite for successful offense. The 141-pound quarterfinal had a great example of this. Ugi Khishignyam of The Citadel returned to the center down a point with 10 seconds left in the second tiebreaker period. After a simple touch and go single where Ugi briefly got to his feet, Oregon State’s Michael Mangrum forced Ugi back to the mat where The Citadel wrestler stepped over the leg and executed a limp arm to come behind and score the winning takedown with two seconds left.
3. The high crotch is missing in action
Perhaps the observation that shocked me the most was the fact that of the 76 takedowns in the quarterfinals, only one came on a traditional head outside high crotch attack. At 149 pounds, Steve Santos of Columbia took Cole VonOhlen of Air Force down with an elbow pass to high crotch in the second period of their match, though the reason behind the low number of takedowns from this attack might come from this example, as it took Santos nearly a full minute score after capturing the leg. A head outside attack gives the defender more chances to create scrambles for stalemates and defensive scores. This has led to a rise in inside reach single leg takedowns that may start the same as a high crotch but ends with the attacker cutting the corner hard and early in order to shut down these scramble situations and finish quicker and cleaner. It is the next step in the evolution of technique that makes wrestling interesting.
4. Good wrestlers rarely give up points on their own attacks
Lightweights were especially good at either scoring or ending up in a stalemate when they attacked, and they rarely give up points when they would attack. This was most true when the attacker got to the leg. Upper weights scored more, but not what anyone would call often. Where wrestlers are having some success at all weights is with reattacks. I define a reattack as shooting immediately after your opponent does so. This often happens when the defending wrestler tries to spin behind on a shot but drops to the legs when the opponent gets up off of his knees. Good wrestlers do not stay down when they miss on a shot, so opportunistic wrestlers need to be ready to attack. The type of shot on a reattack seems to be a lot less important than timing and tenacity.
5. Wrestlers cannot rely on defensive scrambling to score
In the cat-and-mouse game of offense and defense, defense had the upper hand for a while as many wrestlers become proficient at defensive scrambling with none perhaps better at it than Missouri’s four time finalist and two time champion Ben Askren. In the years since his career ended, offense has caught up, and while defensive scrambling is here to stay, wrestlers are not scoring with it very often. Defending wrestlers can frequently force a stalemate, but they do not often score, as evidenced by the fact that only three wrestlers scored takedowns this way in the 2013 quarterfinals. One of these was Penn State’s Ed Ruth, who can apparently do whatever he wants out there, and another was Northwestern’s Jason Welch, one of the funkier wrestlers of the last few seasons.
6. The fireman’s carry is all but gone in NCAA wrestling
The fireman’s carry is a move that had its day, but that day is past. It still exists in high school, and some teams have a fair amount of success with it, but that success mostly ends in college. There are at least two reasons for this change. First, shooting a fireman’s carry often involves shooting across the opponent’s body, giving him a chance to get an advantageous angle on the attacker. Second, as technique trends away from the high crotch toward inside reach single legs, the prevalence of the fireman’s carry will continue to diminish. Robert Kokesh of Nebraska is one contemporary wrestler who did a lot of fireman’s carries during his freshman year of 2011-2012, but he seemed to have moved on from the move to a degree in 2013 and found greater success, including a third place finish in Des Moines.
7. An opponent on his knees is vulnerable to an overtie shrug or slide by
It only happened a few times in the quarterfinals, but it looked nearly identical each time, which is why it caught my eye. Sometimes a wrestler will attack or take a half shot while leaving his hand up in a collar tie position. Some wrestlers have become proficient at taking an overtie on the same side, catching the elbow, and passing quickly behind the opponent for a takedown. If a wrestler is on the lookout for this position, he can probably score some nearly effortless takedowns. Hunter Stieber of Ohio State does this all the time, using it to secure the winning takedown as the clock wound down in his razor thin quarterfinal win over Richard Durso of Franklin & Marshall.
8. Even if a wrestler does not score, excellence on top is rewarded
Clearly, the goal for a wrestler in the top position is to work for a fall or at least score back points and accumulate riding time. That said, it is difficult to turn a good wrestler, but some wrestlers have become so feared that their opponents would rather avoid the bottom position at all costs. If a wrestler can get to this level of proficiency on top, he can often get his opponents to choose neutral rather than spend time on the bottom giving up riding time and expending all the energy it takes to escape a good rider. Ben Bennett of Central Michigan and Tony Nelson of Minnesota each won quarterfinal matches 1-0 because their opponents respected their riding abilities too much to choose the bottom position. For what it is worth, the wrestlers who actually did score back points in the quarterfinals mostly used tilts of one type or another.
9. Wrestlers, even very good ones, have trouble adjusting during the match
Most wrestlers go into a match with a certain game plan and certain techniques that they are confident they can use against most opponents. However, if that game plan does not work or an opponent can stop a wrestler’s best move, most of them do not have a solid Plan B. This persists even up to the senior level. Wrestlers can ride solid defense, one great attack, and athleticism all the way onto the world team sometimes, but the difficulty adjusting mid-match remains. One of the things that separates the best wrestlers in college from the very good is the ability to attack an opponent in different ways. It may be combining a good leg attack with a good upper body attack or just having good attacks at multiple levels or to both sides of the opponent’s body. Jordan Oliver of Oklahoma State is a good example of a wrestler with a variety of attacks that he can execute on high level wrestlers. This as much as anything may help him have success as he moves to the next level. A counter example is the 285-pound quarterfinal between Alan Gelogaev of Oklahoma State and J.T. Felix of Boise State. Felix continued to shoot a single leg to Gelogaev’s right leg over and over again, even capturing it multiple times. He never managed to score, however, and Gelogaev scored four takedowns defending that same shot. This is not to say Felix could have won with a different approach, but it was probably worth switching things up once his initial plan failed to work.
10. Referees could call stalling sooner to spur action
The number of stalling calls could also stand to increase, but that is not what I am arguing for here. If officials would simply make that first stalling call earlier in the match, it might spur more action, even if the total number of stalling calls stayed the same. Having that first warning hanging over his head might encourage a wrestler to pick up the pace and make more attempts. In the 197 lbs. quarterfinal, Dustin Kilgore of Kent State, a wrestler whose 33 bonus point wins last year prove his ability to score, was able to get an early five point move against Micah Burak of Penn. Sadly, he did not score offensively again on his way to a 7-0 win. I would hope for more from a wrestler who was 41-0 at the time. Maybe a quicker stalling call gets him going. One place where the stalling call immediately paid dividends was the 165-pound match between Kyle Dake of Cornell and Nick Sulzer of Virginia. Dake was riding Sulzer’s hips, and the official signaled a stalling warning. Dake, apparently disagreeing with the call, immediately went for a claw roll-through tilt, picking up back points in an attempt he almost certainly would not have made without the call. Now, almost nobody has Dake’s talent and athleticism, so immediate points do not follow every early stalling call, but most fans would rather see the officials encourage action by making that first stalling call in the first period than making it pointlessly with five seconds left in a 3-2 match.
What are some general conclusions one can reach from this exercise? First, wrestling today is both simple and complex. It is simple in that the techniques used to score at the highest levels are the same as those youth coaches are teaching to wrestlers just starting in the sport. The complexity comes in how those techniques are utilized to get past the defense of wrestlers who are strong, experienced, and athletic. Second, the sport is always evolving, even within those simple techniques. Would anyone have suspected a single successful high crotch in 40 matches? I certainly was surprised. Finally, it was heartening to see that the most successful wrestlers tended to be the best offensively. It is not universal, but the best thing that can happen to wrestling is to have the most exciting wrestlers also be the most exciting to watch. If there are rule changes that can open up the sport to make that more often the case, every fan and coach should be in favor them.