Week 9 Preview: It’s Crunch Time!

D1A Rugby: Week 9 Preview: It’s Crunch Time!
Photo Credit: Penn State Rugby Facebook Page
Strap in for a mammoth weekend of College Rugby, as conference champions could be declared and Top 20 teams go into battle. In total, five of the Top 20 teams in the country will be in action, including the much-anticipated Army vs. Penn State fixture. The game will be broadcast through Eleven Sport and streamed on Black Knight Vision, with kick-off scheduled for 12pm Eastern.

In what is becoming somewhat of a tradition, Penn State will play Army in a defacto, Rugby East Championship match. This is the third year in a row this fixture will likely secure the championship for the victor. For Army, if they win there is no way that Penn State would be able to catch them to claim the conference. The same could be said for Penn State, but with two games remaining after this, Penn State will be cautious not to get too far ahead of themselves, and take it one game at a time.

“Definitely not the conference decider,” Justin Hundley, Penn State’s head coach, adamantly stated. “We still have two teams to play after this weekend, but certainly an important game. With the history and two close wins last year, this is a game we look out for every year.” The two close wins that Hundley references, isn’t just hyperbole. In their two fixtures against one another last year, Penn State won both by a point each.

For Army, getting payback for those two narrow losses isn’t what’s on their mind. They have their eyes set on the conference championship, and they aren’t afraid to admit so. “We know what’s at stake and have talked openly about that,” conceded Matthew Sherman, Army’s Head Coach. “But then we’ve turned our focus internally on continuing to improve and change our best each day and in making Saturday our best performance of the season.”

One of the keys to Army’s performance this weekend will come down to the play of James Mbony and Jason Green. The two players lead their team in points in tries. However, the Black Knights aren’t a two-man band, one of their greatest qualities is their depth. They know for a changing of the guard to occur it will take every player they have. Sherman elaborated, “Both Bones and Greeny have had big games for us this fall, but they’d be the first ones to point out that there great efforts came in conjunction with some great work by their teammates. We will need 23 huge efforts on Saturday to play our best and hopefully get a positive result.”

Penn State’s leading man, so far this year, has been Rob Irimescu their big number 8. He’s ability with ball in hand creates threats for Penn State consistently. He has a knack for getting the hard yards up front and busting through contact, you can expect him to be a big part of the Nittany Lions’ plans for success. Hundley noted that a lot of Irimescu’s success comes from his eye for the game, “He has been a great leader upfront and is a strong ball carrier. He certainly has an eye for the try-line and puts himself in situations to score.”
Both coaches are expecting their opponents to strong from 1-23. Sherman described the Penn State team as being the most complete team that he has seen in a while. Hundley also expressed that there isn’t one player on Army’s team that they’ve been able to single out as being critical to their success, and believes that all of their players have an ability to contribute to their side’s efforts. Hundley and Sherman both expressed a keen intent on playing attacking and expansive rugby. Sherman wants to play the game down in Penn State’s half, as has been their tactic all year; and Hundley is focusing on being clinical with ball in hand and to get up in the face of Army defensively to shut their attack down.

This game has traditionally come down to the wire, and seen plenty of points up on the board. This chapter of the rivalry, will prove to be no different. Each coach is acutely aware of what they face, and know that this game will be one well worth a watch. Hundley mentioned “I think it’s a similar game. Army at home are a tough opponent, we are both undefeated and I’m sure it will be a game worth watching.” Sherman added in agreement, “I’m as excited as I’ve been in a long time for this game. I think it will be a great contest and showcase for collegiate rugby.”

The other big game this weekend sees #16 Davenport play their second game of the season, as they take on #15 Notre Dame College. Davenport will be wearing pink socks on Saturday, as part of their ongoing efforts to raise awareness for Breast Cancer during the month of October. This cause has a particular importance to one of the players, as his grandmother is a survivor of breast cancer. Davenport provided a small, but impressive sample size, of what they’re capable of under new head coach Lance Hohaia, when they dismantled the University of Notre Dame, 48-7. Notre Dame College, on the other hand, have not enjoyed the season they had anticipated back in August. Despite impressive performances against Buffalo, Penn State and Wheeling Jesuit to open the season, they have since entered a two game losing skid. This skid has translated into the rankings, and the Falcons will need a win here to make sure their season and high rank, doesn’t slip away from them.

The only other teams from Rugby East involved in D1A action this weekend, are Buffalo and Wheeling Jesuit. Both teams are in search of their first conference victory in 2018.

Notre Dame continues their debut season in D1A as they face off against a formidable Navy side. Both teams have enjoyed success in their fall seasons, however, Navy has been able to sustain their success on a more consistent basis. On average Navy has won its games by an average of 29 points. Notre Dame, will have their work cut out for them, as this is by far and away the strongest side they’ve played all year. It will give them a solid glimpse into just how far they have come, or how far is left to go during their journey in D1A. 

The weekend kicks off on Thursday when #7 BYU takes on Utah State. The last time these two met, it was a rather lopsided affair, with the Cougars winning by over 60 points. This weekend does not look like it will be too different and BYU should pick up another win on the season. Elsewhere, New Mexico will take on Air Force; and Colorado looks to get back to their winning ways against Wyoming.

Oklahoma and Arkansas have been lighting Red River on fire so far in the Fall, and when they take the field this weekend they’ll look to carry that form through. Oklahoma takes on Texas Tech, who have had a rough start to their season going 0-3 and suffer from a -218 point differential. Arkansas gets to take on North Texas, who had a less than ideal start to their D1A tenure losing to Oklahoma, 66-15. The other Red River action taking place sees LSU hosting Texas.

The Big Ten sees Ohio State take on Michigan in a game that will go a long way in the Buckeye’s conference title hopes. After a slow start to the season, the Buckeyes have secured two massive back to back wins over Indiana and Wisconsin. If they can replicate that success they will have a strong chance of taking home the silverware. Michigan State, fresh of their victory in the Battle for the Mitten, will face Indiana. The Hoosiers started the year with promise, but have lost two games and have fallen out of the race for the Big Ten Championship. Rounding out the Big Ten, Illinois will take on Minnesota.

The Liberty conference has some massive matchups this weekend, as teams look to wrap up divisional championships. The biggest game will be between Boston College and UMass. The Minutemen currently are a top of the New England Division, but have played one game more than Boston College. In a similar situation to the Penn State Army game, if UMass wins, then they are the conference champions. If Boston College wins they will have to beat a 2-3 Fairfield team in their final match of the season to secure the divisional championship. Syracuse will look to complete a perfect regular season when they take on Colgate, who have begun to click as the season winds down. This looks like it should be a comfortable win on paper, but Syracuse will not be taking the match lightly. Delaware will take on #13 Iona in a game that will be an interesting matchup. Iona is at the tail end of their season while Delaware is fresh into theirs. Iona will be favorites in the game, but fatigue from a grueling Fall schedule could play a factor. Finishing off the Liberty games, Binghamton will play Albany; AIC will take on Stony Brook, Cortland looks to beat a struggling Brockport; UConn hopes to get above .500 with a win against Rhode Island and Northeastern will host Tufts.