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Penn State clinched a DI-A quarterfinal berth Saturday with a 44-37 defeat of Kutztown in State College, Pa.

The visitors led 18-17 at halftime, but fell behind in the meat of the second half before staging a near comeback.

“Kutztown played us really tough. Obviously, this was a big match for them, so they definitely brought it,” said Penn State coach Don Ferrell. “I thought we played well as well, but every time we made a mistake it seemed like it led to a Kutztown try. They did a real good job of capitalizing on the errors that we made.”

Down by one at intermission, Penn State scored first in the second half to take a 24-18 lead, but the Golden Bears rebutted with an unconverted score to pull within one at 24-23. The next 20 minutes won the game for the Nittany Lions, as they poured in 20-straight points via two converted tries sandwiched by a pair of penalty goals to take a commanding 44-23 lead.

Kutztown clawed back to within seven, dotting down back-to-back converted scores. The last one came in the 79th minute. Penn State took possession of the final restart and kicked the ball to touch. There was enough time for a Kutztown lineout, and the Nittany Lions stole the set piece and held the ball until the clock expired.

“The last 50 minutes was some really open, flowing rugby. Both teams really giving it all they got,” said Ferrell. “Every time we’d go up a couple of tries, they’d find a way to come back.”

Having a monster debut for Penn State was freshman inside center Sam LaPaille, who in his first start, scored three tries. The former Gonzaga star took one in off of a crash ball, finished off a backline move for another and picked and jammed for his third.

“He’s a strong running young player. He’s been playing pretty good for us, espcially with ball in hand. He ran good lines,” said Ferrell of LaPaille. “He was working hard. He was in the mix. For his first a-side start as a true freshman, I was really pleased.”

Penn State puts its undefeated record on the line next week against also unbeaten Army. To the winner goes the Rugby East title and a home playoff game.