He might be the lightest heavyweight in the Big Ten this season, but Nebraska’s Spencer Johnson isn’t worried about slugging it out with the biggest brawlers in the nation’s top wrestling conference.
“He’s about 205 (pounds) with a ham sandwich in him, and a chocolate malt,” Nebraska coach Mark Manning said Friday night. “He’s a rock, he’s not soft.”
Despite being outweighed by more than 30 pounds, Johnson’s dogged determination allowed him to manhandle Chris Lopez for a 3-1 decision that clinched the 14th-ranked Huskers’ 18-15 upset of No. 5 Illinois. It was Nebraska's first win against a top five-ranked opponent since a 22-13 upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State in January 2008.
None of the points in the heavyweight match were scored as a direct result of offensive attacks. Johnson got an escape four seconds into the second period and took a 2-0 lead with 59 seconds left in the match when Lopez was penalized for stalling.
Lopez escaped with 11 seconds to go, but Johnson had piled up enough time to earn a riding bonus and fought off late attacks for the victory, his second in three matches since returning to the lineup after tearing the ACL in his left knee in August.
“He didn’t put a lot of points on the board,” Manning said, “but I felt pretty good about the match after a few minutes.”
Just minutes after the dual ended, Johnson was clearly tired and sore, but couldn’t help but smile knowing he had won with a big dual meet on the line.
“It feels like a lot of pressure, but you’ve got to rise to the occasion,” Johnson said. “That’s my style, wearing a kid out and beating on him. That’s my kind of match, just brawling.”
A similar blue-collar, bare-knuckles approach served the Huskers well in the two biggest matchups of the night.
Third-ranked Robert Kokesh controlled the pace from the opening whistle and wore down No. 5 Jordan Blanton for an 8-3 decision at 174 pounds that gave the Huskers a 12-6 lead.
Kokesh (25-1) won his 21st straight match, with the last six all against ranked opponents.
The next match, the only other pairing ranked wrestlers, Illinois’ 12th-ranked Tony Dallago was penalized for stalling with 36 seconds left, and NU’s No. 7 Josh Ihnen fought off three late attacks to hold on for a 5-4 win that gave NU a 15-6 advantage with three matches to go.
If not for a close call on the edge of the mat in the opening match, the Huskers might have run off wins in the first four matches.
After NU’s Shawn Nagel nearly rallied late in the third period to upset No. 14 Daryl Thomas at 133 in the opening match, the Huskers responded with dominant performances by ranked wrestlers at the next three weights to take a commanding 9-3 lead.
No. 19 Ridge Kiley scored a takedown midway through the second period at 141 and rode Logan Arlis the rest of the match for a 4-0 victory.
At 149, 13th-ranked Jake Sueflohn came close to scoring a near fall five different times before settling for an 8-1 win against Caleb Ervin.
Second-ranked James Green notched three takedowns and a reversal in his 9-4 win against Matt Nora.
The Huskers (9-3) now prepare for what might be the toughest challenge of their season -- a Jan. 27 road dual with two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Penn State.
NEBRASKA 18, ILLINOIS 15
133--Thomas, Ill., dec. Nagel, 10-8; 141--Kiley, NU, dec. Arlis, 4-0; 149--Sueflohn, NU, dec. Ervin, 8-1; 157--Green, NU, dec. Nora, 9-4; 165--Polz, Ill., dec. Koehn, 10-4; 174--Kokesh, NU, dec. Blanton, 8-3; 184--Ihnen, NU, dec. Dallago, 5-4; 197--Gonzalez, Ill., dec. Kolb, 4-3; 285--Johnson, NU, dec. Lopez, 3-1; 125--Delgado, Ill., pinned Coufal, 6:55.