Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning expects the Devaney Center to be close to full when the eighth-ranked Huskers face third-ranked Iowa in Saturday's Big Ten dual.
He also expects his team to handle that environment.
“The atmosphere is going to be very, very intense,” said NU junior Robert Kokesh, who brings a 23-1 record into the dual. “Iowa brings a great fan base. There's going to be a lot of people, probably more than we're used to. We just have to go out and block all that out. Iowa is a tough team, and so are we. We have to go and compete at a high level.”
Last season's Nebraska-Iowa dual drew 9,510 to Carver-Hawkeye Arena — Iowa led the nation in attendance last year, averaging 8,764 per home date.
The Hawkeyes controlled last season's dual, winning eight of the 10 matches for a 31-7 victory.
Manning said the Huskers are “a lot better from that.”
“We had several guys not handle that environment very well last year,” he said. “My philosophy is you either get better or you get worse, and I'm sure our guys got better from that.
“I told our guys: 'You're not wrestling Dan Gable. You're not wrestling 10 guys. You're not wrestling the program. You're wrestling one guy.' Our guys are in a much better place mentally right now.”
Nebraska, which has four freshmen in its lineup, is 8-0 in duals this season. The Huskers rolled past Indiana and Penn last weekend.
“We have a young team and we've definitely made some strides so far,” Kokesh said. “As a team, I think we're bonding a lot closer and competing a lot harder. I think if we keep working hard, we can compete for a Big Ten title and a national title.”
Iowa, meanwhile, is 10-1 in duals, having lost to top-ranked Penn State in December. The Hawkeyes have won their four duals in January by a combined 133-13. That included a 24-6 win over fifth-ranked Oklahoma State, as well as three conference wins.
And while seven of Nebraska's starters are in InterMat's national rankings, all 10 of Iowa's starters are ranked. There will be three matchups between top 10 wrestlers — Iowa's Thomas Gilman (No. 3) against Tim Lambert (No. 9) at 125 pounds; Iowa's Derek St. John (No. 1) and James Green (No. 3) at 157; and Kokesh (No. 4) and Iowa's Mike Evans (No. 6) at 174.
Gilman, an Omaha Skutt graduate, and Lambert are redshirt freshmen. On the other hand, Kokesh and Evans, as well as St. John and Green, are very familiar with one another.
Kokesh lost to Evans twice, as a freshman and during last year's dual, before finally defeating the Hawkeye junior at the NCAA championships. That 3-2 win propelled Kokesh to a third-place finish at nationals.
“When you finally beat him, you realize all the hard work you put in finally is paying off,” Kokesh said. “I'm working harder than I did last year.”
Green vs. St. John is the marquee matchup: Both are unbeaten this season.
St. John holds a 2-1 all-time advantage, winning a pair of 6-4 decisions. Green edged St. John 5-4 in the Big Ten tournament last March, but St. John hasn't lost since then, winning 27 matches in a row. St. John won the 157-pound title at nationals, while Green placed seventh.
“This is what you train for,” Manning said. “You don't train for the guy you're going to tech fall. You train for these guys.”
Five Hawkeyes in Saturday's lineup finished in the top six at nationals a year ago.
“It's a challenge for our team,” Manning said. “Our team is growing, getting better. We'll be able to see where we're at with about eight weeks to go (before nationals).”
Notes: Before the Iowa-Nebraska dual, there will be a high school dual at Devaney between Omaha Skutt and Iowa's Davenport Assumption. That dual will start at 2 p.m. ... Iowa leads the all-time series 28-10-2 and has won the last six matchups. ... Saturday's dual will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.