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Anchored by a dominant scrum that resulted in three tries, #8 Navy upset the undefeated Rugby East powerhouse, #6 Penn State, in an epic 38-29 brawl in State College, Pa. The Midshipmen’s set-piece wrecked havoc on the Nittany Lions as two stolen scrums led to immediate scores and a penalty try was awarded when they were walking the ball in. PSU attempted to claw back in the second half, but a late try by Connor McNerney sealed the victory.
Speaking to Rugby Today after the match, Navy head coach Gavin Hickie said, "It was very satisfying. Nobody gave us a chance of winning this game today. If you ask anyone is the whole country, they would have backed Penn State as the Rugby East Champion and having beaten Army last week. We are just quietly going about our business and we will take anybody on. We had a good feeling about this game. Penn State was just another game for us and we had every intention of winning this game."
As for the scrum, Hickie added, "Our scrum was particularly dominant today and that set the tone for us from the start. We were putting a lot of pressure on their scrum all day... It laid a very solid platform for us. One of our main focuses is to be the best scrummagers in the country and we are headed in that direction. In order to have the ball, you have to have a strong set piece and I think we showed that today against a very good Penn State team."
If the first possession told the story of the match, Navy’s forward pack was the mouthpiece. After five minutes of methodic phase play down the field, the backs provided the punch to get close and the forwards cleaned it up. In the end, flanker Spencer Craig bulldozed in for the try. The conversion missed, but Navy led 5-0.
After almost scoring again, Navy was driving into PSU territory when a missed pass found the hands of the Nittany Lions’ Kiefer Kei-Boguinard. The inside center carved up the defense to get within ten meters of the try line. Following a Navy penalty, PSU quick tapped and spun the ball wide to Kevin Trotter in the corner for the try. Jimmy Ronan tacked on the conversion for the 7-5 lead.
Playing aggressively, PSU continued to make gains but gave it right back with penalties. On the flip side, Navy had a possession-based, grind it out approach that was difficult to stop.
After about 20 minutes of play, the Navy drive was held up in the endzone. With a five-meter scrum, the Midshipmen pack began to walk it into the endzone when the PSU defense began to crumble and multiple players were offsides. The referee made the call to award a penalty try to Navy and the subsequent conversion by McNerney made it 12-7.
After a PSU penalty by Ronan cut the lead to 12-10, Navy attempted to counter with its own PK, but the kick was wide. With less than five minutes remaining in the half, Navy stole PSU’s scrum inside the 22 and ten phases later, prop Bo Kendrick-Holmes finished the pack attack with a try.
Minutes later, PSU found itself again deep inside its own territory. The forward pack for the Midshipmen again flexed their muscles to steal the scrum and McNerney picked the ball to score in the corner. The conversion missed its mark and Navy was up 24-10 at the half.
With the momentum, Navy added to its lead in the opening minutes of the second half. After losing possession, Navy poached the ball back and the pack did the rest. Successive forward phases inched the ball closer to the line where reserve Mike Galvan scored to extend the tally to 31-10.
Sensing the game may be slipping away, the Nittany Lions reasserted themselves soon after. Following a striking run through five defenders by Kei-Boguinard, quick ball to the wing saw Trotter score his second try of the match. Ronan missed the points after, but PSU was rolling. Navy responded by moving the ball inside, but Mike Dabulas intercepted a pass just inside 50. Strong running by Kei-Boguinard found pay dirt and Ronan’s conversion left Navy’s advantage to nine points at 31-22.
With less than ten minutes left, Navy attempted a long-range penalty to give itself some breathing room, but the kick was short. After the missed penalty, Navy kicked it back into PSU 22 and after some initial play, the Nittany Lions kicked the ball into touch within the 22. As the jumper in the subsequent lineout, McNerney came down with the ball and ran straight through the defense for the diving try. The eightman captain made his own kick for the 38-22 lead.
Never giving up, PSU sent a brilliant grubber that was recovered inside the 22. The Nittany Lions almost scored but were penalized at the goal line. On the Navy scrum at five meters, Ronan challenged his opposite number for the ball at the back of the set piece. The PSU scrumhalf disrupted the pass and gathered the ball for the easy try. Ronan made the conversion returning the advantage back to nine points.
Navy kicked the ball deep and PSU moved it inside the visitor’s territory with good ball movement and phase play. A PSU penalty kick to close the gap was no good. After the PK, PSU got the ball back but kicked into Navy’s 22 where the ball was marked by McNerney. After conferring with the referee, Connor tapped and kicked the ball into touch for the 38-29 victory.
Although the forward pack dominated all around the park, Hickie awarded the man of the match to hooker Luis Hernandez. "He was the standout forward for us in the middle of our scrum and he had very accurate lineout throws. He was the heartbeat all day long for our forward dominance."
The Midshipmen will put their perfect record to test against Life on Saturday in Annapolis, Md. "Life is one of the very best," Hickie said. "They are very well coached, phenomenal program, and we have the utmost respect for Life. However, it’s not so much about Life, it’s about us. How can we improve from this performance this week against Penn Life? It’s a big day next week with it being Veterans Day and it’s a big day at the Naval Academy. Plus, one of our coaches Major Murph McCarthy is retiring at the game after 25 years as a Marine. It will be a special day at Navy Rugby next week."