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Clemson earned its first-ever Penn Mutual Varsity Cup win with a thrilling 26-22 victory over Arkansas State, as two late penalties from Aaron Keers spoiled a second-half comeback for the Red Wolves. Arkansas State controlled the early stages of the game, pressuring Clemson with the kicking game. The Tigers defense held strong, but their defensive line started to narrow. Arkansas State found the space out wide and busted through for the opening score.
Clemson settled down after conceding the opening points and got on the board through the first of three Keers penalties. The Clemson pack began to impose its will on Arkansas State, chipping away at the fringes. After some valiant defense from the Red Wolves and even better patience from Clemson, Max Simons dove over to take an 8-7 lead.
The Tigers continued to apply pressure to Arkansas State, monopolizing territory and possession. The home side earned a penalty five meters out, and Kevin Mckeown snuck over the line to increase the lead to 15-7.
A penalty cut the Clemson lead to 15-10 moments before halftime, but Clemson sustained pressure inside the Red Wolves' 22. The forwards kept banging away at the fringes and finally the ball made its way to winger Chris Abraham, who fended off two defenders, for a 20-10 halftime lead.
“We have relied heavily on forwards, and after the first 10 minutes we felt like we started to display a little bit of dominance in the forwards,” said Clemson coach Justin Hickey. “A lot of what I was hearing amongst the team at halftime was that they felt good, they felt confidence their to build phases in tight with the forwards and just make yards, regain possession, be patient and wait for things to open up. Credit to our forwards, they did a great job controlling that aspect of the game."
Clemson seemed to pick up where it loft off, winning the game at the breakdown. The Tigers withstood a couple of forays into their 22 but were in the ascendancy. Looking to increase their lead, they had numbers wide but Michael Krochta intercepted the pass and ran 70 meters for an ASU score.
The Red Wolves seized the momentum and began to make gains through the backline. Starting inside its own territory, ASU broke the Clemson line and used several well-executed offloads down the left sideline to tie the game. Arkansas State nailed the tough conversion to go up 22-20.
Clemson pursued the game, but a number of knock-ons and penalties thwarted the attack. The Tigers, who had been strong in the scrum all afternoon, struggled to maintain the dominance in the waning minutes.
The referee, however, awarded a penalty to Clemson off a scrum with eight minutes to play and Keers placed the kick through the uprights from 35 meters out to retake the lead 23-22. Keers later added another penalty from 40 meters out down the left sideline, forcing ASU to score a try in order to win the match.
“They have that conversation every game, where do you feel good from,” Hickey said of his captain and his kicker. “He said I wanted it, and I went to my radio and said he must know something I don’t. Obviously, he was feeling good, ended up striking the ball well, and while it only put us up by four, it really was a nail in the coffin.”
The remaining minutes saw ASU attempt another comeback, but tenacious defense from the hosts prevented the score. The Clemson defense was superb all day other than a few moments and ultimately guided the Tigers to victory on the afternoon.
“They clearly like to move the ball to the sideline and get it straight to the 13 channel,” Hickey said of Arkansas State. “In the second half kind of flooding that channel defensively was the difference.”
For Clemson, it was its first-ever Varsity Cup win, and with the win the Tigers have earned a matchup with Navy in the quarterfinals.
“I am just proud and excited for the guys,” Hickey said. “For them to be able to stick in their, keep their composure and make critical decisions under pressure and really just kind of grind it out and do what we need to do was really great.”