The most mind-numbing match involving Darrion Caldwell this season may have taken place in the North Carolina State sophomore's head a couple weeks ago, when his highlight-reel instincts wrestled against his coach's tone-it-down directives.
Caldwell, as far back as he can remember, has been a risk-taker on the mat. He might be the closest thing college wrestling has to a pin-at-all-costs competitor. He wrestles like he has somewhere else he needs to be in a couple minutes.
But more opponents, more opposing coaches and more video cameras have been tracking Caldwell since he was involved last spring in the most action-packed 100 seconds in recent NCAA meet history. And perhaps nowhere was this more evident than Nov. 30 during the early-rounds of the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
"They were following him around like a herd of cattle, man," North Carolina State coach Carter Jordan said. "I turned around at one point and it was like a sea of blue with people from Michigan."
They all wanted to take a closer look at an athlete skilled enough to win three New Jersey state wrestling titles, letter in baseball and earn all-state honors twice in football at Rahway High School.
They all wanted to see the athleticism that makes Caldwell one of the most explosive wrestlers in the country and also has him thinking about playing defensive back for the Wolfpack football team before his eligibility expires.
But perhaps most of all, they wanted to see how Caldwell sets up his big moves -- and Jordan wasn't going to let it happen. He ordered Caldwell to get through the quarterfinals in Las Vegas with basics, which is sort of like giving Alex Rodriguez the bunt sign three times in a game.
"It was really hard to resist," Caldwell said. "I've always tried to entertain people. When people watch me wrestle, I want them to see a show."
Caldwell's swing-for-the-fences mentality has helped launch him to the No. 2 spot in the national rankings at 149 pounds. He won two of his early matches in Las Vegas by scoring a collective eight points before pulling out his wide-open style and ripping through the rest of the tournament with a 12-3 win against returning NCAA finalist and then-No. 2 Josh Churella of Michigan and an 8-6 victory against Harvard's third-ranked J.P. O'Connor in the finals.
Caldwell has a 13-1 record this season with seven pins and four victories against opponents ranked eighth or better. Half of his matches haven't reached the second period and three haven't gone beyond 28 seconds.
"We've had to rein him in," Jordan said. "What we've been trying to do is teach him how to wrestle a seven-minute match at this level. He doesn't have to go out and pin everybody in the first 50 seconds."
But Caldwell gained a highlight-reel reputation with big moves, not by winning low-scoring matches.
"You're going to have matches like that, but I highly doubt that I'll have too many of those," he said. "Hitting a big move is like trying to hit a home run. You can't hit a home run every at-bat. You've got to take them as they come and take advantage of the opportunities. A 4-3 match is going to happen, but you've got to be able to capitalize to hit that home run."
Caldwell's only loss this season came when he got pinned by Oklahoma's Will Rowe in a match Caldwell led 6-1.
Similar circumstances were involved in March during the match that stamped Caldwell as one of the most exciting wrestlers in the country. Unseeded entering the NCAA meet, Caldwell reached the 141-pound quarterfinals and electrified the crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills with a breakneck pace that catapulted him to an 8-2 lead against Northwestern's top-ranked Ryan Lang and put Caldwell on the verge of becoming North Carolina State's first All-American since 1996.
"That was out of control," Jordan said. "That was way over my coaching IQ. That was something else."
Lang whipped Caldwell to his back for a pin, ending a match in which 16 points were scored in 1 minute, 40 seconds. Both wrestlers received a standing ovation that lasted nearly as long as the match itself.
"I was sad that I lost, I was angry that I lost and I was ecstatic at the same time," Caldwell said. "Being a freshman and getting a standing ovation at the NCAA Tournament, I was ecstatic."
Caldwell wants his ovation this year to come after the NCAA finals. He wants to become North Carolina State's first national champion since 1993 and he wants to put on a show in the process, which might go against his coach's tone-it-down directives.
"He wrestles with a lot of instincts," Jordan said. "We're trying to get him to develop game plans when he goes out there that he sticks to. If we can not outthink ourselves and overcoach him too much and combine the two, he could really be good.
"Remember, he hasn't done anything yet. We want him to be very confident and he is, and he should feel good about what he's done so far. But you don't win any national titles in December."
Around the Nation
" Iowa became the third school in three weeks to get a grip on the nation's No. 1 ranking after the Hawkeyes vaulted from No. 4 to the top spot with a 20-13 victory Sunday against Iowa State in Ames. The Cyclones held the No. 1 tag for a week after taking it from defending-NCAA champion Minnesota.
"It's a nice tag to put on your program this early in the season, especially with the firepower Minnesota had coming back," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "We've got a lot of work to do, and I will challenge our guys right now. We are not going to rest on our laurels. We have to be more consistent. We have to build off this and springboard off it."
" Penn State continued the shake-up near the top of the rankings when the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions beat No. 3 Oklahoma State 21-18 in Stillwater.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.