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Life University’s fall Mid-Atlantic road trip was a resounding success as the Running Eagles swept Penn State and Navy this weekend. On Thursday night, Life found itself in a 51-34 dogfight with the Nittany Lions. 48 hours later, Life traveled south to Annapolis, Md. for a bout with the Midshipmen. In a game where the scoreboard didn’t reflect how close the match was, the Running Eagles blanked Navy, 30-0.
Life took the lessons it learned in the PSU game and applied them to Navy. Head coach Colton Cariaga said, “From a defensive perspective, based on our performance [against PSU], we identified a bit more awareness on defense, getting our realignment correct, and getting off the line quicker. We made a couple of system errors in our last match, so the past 48 hours we’ve spent a lot of time making sure that we got our rotation and line speed right on defense. It’s a work in progress and today was pretty good.”
To begin the tour, Life started at State College, Pa. on Thursday under the lights. The Running Eagles’ Sean Coughlan jumped out to an early 7-0 lead before Penn State got on the board with a Jimmy Ronan penalty. The Running Eagles got two more converted tries from Keagan Sparks and Mitch Wilson to extend the lead to 21-3 and looked to be running away with it early in the match.
A Ronan penalty and Wilson’s second try set the score at 26-6. Penn State, however, scored three unanswered tries, including two from Mike Dabulas, and added a penalty early in the second half to notch the game up at 26-26.
The Nittany Lions and the Running Eagles traded tries to even the game at 31 before Penn State took the lead with Ronan’s fourth penalty with 20 minutes to go. Ultimately, a Harley Wheeler try would give Life the lead for good as the Running Eagles reeled off three consecutive scores to take the match at 51-34.
Cariaga characterized the PSU match as a battle of momentum. “We started well and finished well, but that middle third of the game was pretty much all Penn State. They pounced on some opportunities and they won the transition in many aspects in that middle third of the game and it led to quick scores. It was a game of momentum and was a good lesson for us.”
With the time to analyze how Penn State got back into the match, Cariaga and his staff emphasized defense and scrummaging against Navy. The extra focus paid off with a 30-0 shutout of the undefeated Midshipmen.
“There is an element of Scott Lawrence still around and he had a big defensive focus," Cariaga said. "Coach Neethling Gericke and Blake Bradford have spent a lot of time with the guys on defense and working the basics making sure we do the basics well.”
“We knew Navy had a really good scrum,” Cariaga continued. “It was going to take an eight man effort to scrum well against those guys. For the most part, we did pretty well... Our guys really committed to doing a good job in scrummaging and staying stable. It allowed us to maintain possession and build some momentum. Credit Navy’s scrum because they were still pretty strong today.”
It didn’t take Life long to set the tone and score its first points versus Navy. Two minutes in, a powerful run by prop Alex Maughan set up Harley Wheeler for the try. Duncan Van Schalkwyk missed the conversion but made up for it with a penalty a few minutes later for the 8-0 lead.
After the opening salvo by the Running Eagles. Navy had a good portion of the possession, but Life’s attack defense seemed impenetrable. In the tenth minute, Life’s Maciu Koroi was binned for a late hit, but Navy was unable to take advantage for points.
With the Midshipmen scrumhalf under duress all game long, the Life’s fast defense didn’t give an inch. The Running Eagles killed off the card and in the 34th minute, Daemon Torres found the endzone going weak off a ruck following a lineout maul. With the momentum, Koroi broke the line up the middle and prop Matt Harmon scored just before the half for the 22-0 tally.
After halftime, Life’s aggressiveness on defense got itself in trouble with the referee. In a five-minute period, both flankers were sent off with yellow cards. Unfortunately for Navy, it couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity. The Life defense held each time and even added a Van Schalkwyk penalty in the 60th minute.
Wheeler’s second try in the 75th minute sealed the victory for Life to complete the two-game sweep of top ten ranked competition.
Rugby Today spoke with Navy head coach Gavin Hickie to get his thoughts on the hard-fought match. “Life is a very, very good side. It obviously stings a little bit not to get any points on the board, but we’ll take some invaluable lessons from this game against one of the best teams in the country. We just didn’t execute in some areas of the pitch which is disappointing but that’s the pressure you are put under when you play a team like Life.”
Cariaga summed up the road trip as a matter of perspective. "Time on the road gives a different perspective. It's been an opportunity for us to come together away from the comforts of home. We saw some pressure the other night and had to be honest with ourselves in our debrief. With a quick turnaround, we had to get back on task right away and put in another performance. We were better over 80 minutes today and we're building."
With the victories, Life concluded its fall season and will start its Mid-South Conference schedule in February. Navy is at Notre Dame on Friday night for its fall finale while Penn State beat New England College, 71-12, today to end its 2017 campaign.