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After missing the postseason last year, Penn State and Wisconsin each had something to prove in the first round of the D1A National Playoffs in Cottage Grove, Wis. The Nittany Lion defense proved formidable and Wisconsin was unable to break through for the victory as Penn State will advance to the quarterfinals, 33-8.
Penn State earned an at large bid to the DI-A Playoffs after going 4-2 in the Rugby East and Wisconsin won the Big Ten Championship over Ohio State for an automatic bid. Each team prepared for the match in different ways; Penn State battling the likes of Buffalo and Schuylkill River and Wisconsin testing their mettle in a seven-day tour in France.
“I thought Wisconsin played well,” Penn State head coach Chris Amoratis said. “Their spring break tour seemed to really be positive for them. They came out fast and played hard. They were aggressive at the breakdown and took more balls from us than I would like. They stressed us defensively and broke our line a few times. Luckily, our scramble defense worked well and we were able to rebuild our wall. We stopped all but one open-play scoring opportunities. Their 10 and 13 had great games and strong carries. They gave us fits.”
“I thought that we played ok,” Amoratis added. “We struggled a bit in the set pieces but were able to solidify them as the day went on. Defensively, we held most of what they ran at us, even with multiple line breaks. I thought that when we got into our pattern on attach things went well, but it took us quite a bit of the first half to regularly get into pattern.”
Wisconsin took advantage of an early penalty to kick for points and outside center/captain Matoko Noudehou split the uprights for the 3-0 lead. Penn State would respond with back-to-back tries by Michael Eife and Ryan McNulty.
Selby Niumataiwalu was the catalyst for the first try when he intercepted a Badger pass and dished to Chris Burian on the counterattack. Wing Eife finished the long run with the try. After getting continual pressure against Wisconsin, McNulty completed the assault for his club’s second score. Scrumhalf Jimmy Ronan converted the second try and Penn State led 12-3 at the half.
The Badgers would score their lone try of the match six minutes into the second half when flanker Kyle Pedraza took a pick and go for a try off ruck from a crash ball. With the missed conversion, Wisconsin cut the lead to five points and Penn State only led 12-8.
In the last quarter of the match, the Nittany Lion defense would clamp down and the offense would score three tries. At the 59th minute, PSU’s Zachary Barnes started the scoring with a pick inside the Wisconsin 22 and returned the ball for a try. After an assist by Niumataiwalu, flanker Sean Mahon scored Penn State’s third try and Patrick Cusick set up inside center Robert Irimescu with a behind the back pass to score the final try in stoppage time. Ronan was three for three on conversions in the second half. In the end, Penn State advanced to the quarterfinals with a 33-8 win over Wisconsin.
“Penn State played how we thought they would,” Wisconsin captain Matoko Noudehou said. “They played a really aggressive forward mentality. A forward inclined game of rugby. A lot of dishing, a lot of passing out of contact, a lot of tackling and rucking. A very physical game and I think we did well to stick with them in that regard seeing that we were smaller than them. I think we struggled with our tackling at times being too high and covering them on the wings.”
While Coach Amoratis is pleased with the win, he knows the road only gets tougher ahead. “Ultimately, I think Wisconsin is a well coached, hard-playing team and I’m happy to walk away with a win. We will see how the rest of the first-round matches go next weekend and see how the brackets fall out. I expect tough matches across the rest of the tournament, as the teams at the tops of the tables are all quality.”
Even though Wisconsin lost, Noudehou takes a lot of positives from the experience. “It means a lot. It means that we are going forward as a club. We won the Big Ten Championship this season and then we got our bid and we proved ourselves worthy of that bid. I think these are all positive steps forward. Next year, we will have more numbers and more experience players. We should be back getting better.”
The D1A National Playoff seeds have not been established and Penn State will wait for it’s opponent already in the quarterfinals.