BOULDER, Colo. – With so many great conference matches taking place this weekend, including the opening match for the Mid-South between Life and Lindenwood, some of the great out-of-conference matchups can be forgotten in the mix. This weekend may just be the most action-packed weekend D1A has seen in quite some time with a few top-notch fall conference teams returning to the pitch.
Air Force v BYU
Air Force came out of its winter break to an imposing schedule, which started with a match against D1A powerhouse Life. Though starting out showing some rust, the Zoomies rebounded with a 37-13 victory over Clemson.
Following that imposing weekend came another, when Air Force traveled to Berkeley to take on Cal. Air Force came out swinging against the Golden Bears, only being down, 14-12, before Cal turned up the heat and scored 51 unanswered points to down the Zoomies.
“After only two weeks of play the players have shown a tremendous capacity for improvement,” said Air Force Head Coach Denny Merideth. “Playing tough opposition has demonstrated to the players those areas that need concentration and the skills that need to be honed.
“The players have proven to themselves that athletically they can compete and by focusing on fundamentals as they gain experience in higher levels of competition they will be successful. The team now has to instill an ability to manage lapses in momentum and regain composure.”
If improvement is the main focus of Merideth and his staff, they’ll have another opportunity to improve when they take on BYU this weekend.
“BYU will bring a very physical and experienced approach to the game,” said Merideth.
The Cougars with be the toughest test Air Force has faced yet. Coming off of an impressive, 30-29, win against defending National Champion Saint Mary’s, the men from Provo are playing some phenomenal rugby. The relentless pace at which BYU plays is the same speed that the Zoomies prefer to play, but the stout defense of BYU will be difficult to match. Air Force will have to play its best rugby of the year for a chance at the win, but they can count on improving after playing one of the country’s best.
Davenport vs. Arkansas State
Davenport will start its spring season with a match against Arkansas State. The Panthers haven’t taken to the pitch since the fall, which they used as a pre-season to evaluate players in order to place talent in the correct positions before they face their difficult spring schedule. They dropped a close match to No. 4 Indiana, and then went on to get run over by Arkansas State, 45-7. That result would lead most to believe this match will yield a similar result, but don’t be so sure.
With the experience of playing Arkansas State comes prior knowledge of how the team likes to play. The Panthers also have an air of unknown surrounding them, as the team has had little outside practice since winter started.
“The winter months are tough up here,” said Davenport Head Coach James Wood. “At the current moment (Wednesday afternoon), we are under a winter storm warning with a forecasted seven to 12 inches of snow to fall, which cancelled the practice I was planning and also closed campus early.
“With that said, we make due with what we have available which included an indoor track, a basketball court, and, when the weather decides to cooperate, our turf fields outdoors. Over the winter we have been running conditioning sessions on the track and skill sessions in the gym. Up until today, we were able to get outside a little bit and run on a full-width field, which was nice.”
Davenport was able to overcome Arkansas State last spring after losing to them in the fall of 2014. They were able to do so with All-American JP Eloff, who has since graduated and is now playing for the USA Eagles. Still, Davenport isn’t short on talent.
“Connor Schilling, Carl Smith, Thomas Cheslek, and Brady Gent have been consistent bright spots for us this fall,” said Wood. “I expect those guys to show up again on Saturday.”
There will have to be a rebound from the forgettable fall, and this match against Arkansas State will be a good match to gauge where they stand, and if they are ready to play at the level their Mid-South counterparts will be bringing in March.
Wheeling Jesuit vs. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
The Cardinals emerge from a fall campaign in Rugby East to continue playing some challenging rugby in preparation for the D1A Playoffs. That journey starts with a faceoff with IUP, a Division II side that had an impressive season. Shutting teams out plus putting on 60-plus points on its opponents is impressive no matter the level, and should provide Wheeling Jesuit with a competitive match.
Wheeling Jesuit played had a great emergence in the fall, going 7-3 and playing tight matches against some of the best Rugby East sides in Army and Penn State. All-American Peter Malcolm was a big help to the Cardinals’ success this season, Malcolm scored four tries in five conference matches, running over defenders using his tenacious running style. However, Malcolm will not be participating in this match against IUP due to an invitation to the Men’s Eagles Sevens High Performance Camp in Chula Vista, where he will be fighting to get a spot on the roster for the upcoming Las Vegas leg of the 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. If he earns a spot on the team, it would give Malcolm his first international cap.
Even without Malcolm, the Cardinals have great talent in guys like Zachary Reichenbach and Cecil Rich, and should play well coming back for the spring season.
Arizona vs. Arizona State
Wins in the PAC Rugby conference are hard to come by with teams like Cal, UCLA, and Utah leading the way, but this match gives Arizona an opportunity to get their first PAC win of the season.
Like Air Force, Arizona has challenged itself with matches against some of the best in the nation. The Wildcats have faced St. Mary’s, Lindenwood, UCLA, Utah, and Cal. Though these results haven’t gone in Arizona’s favor, it has provided them with a glimpse at what makes up these great rugby programs. With the talented youth that Arizona has, the Wildcats seem to be on the rise in D1A, and this match against Arizona State will provide a stage for them to show what they’ve learned over the last couple months of playing top-tier teams.
These two sides met in October for some preseason time on the pitch, but neither of their A-sides hit the pitch. The JV and developmental sides from both Arizona and Arizona State got some playing time in matches, and both matches ended with lopsided results. Arizona took both, defeating ASU’s JV side, 60-14, and their Developmental side, 37-0.
This is more than a rivalry match between these two schools, as both desperately need a win in the PAC Rugby conference. Neither team has a win so far this season, and will be looking for any separation they can get.
Wyoming vs. Utah State
After a tough fall in which Wyoming struggled at times against the West, the Cowboys have played well so far this spring. Losing to No. 19 Santa Clara only by seven, then earning a win against Stanford, the young Laramie squad is showing some improvement. Wyoming has two less difficult matches on its plate now as it faces Utah State and Montana State.
Wyoming should have a great game against Utah State this weekend, and look for guys like Cody Jerabek and Michael Lewis to continue to grow.
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas
The Aggies breezed past Baylor in their last contest, and even though they have this week away from Red River action, they will have a tall task in Arkansas.
Texas A&M improved on the defensive side of the pitch in its victory over Baylor, and will have to keep that up against a high-scoring Razorback squad. Arkansas has rolled through the first three Heart of America conference matches against Iowa State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State, whom they dismantled, 108-0. An outing like that is the epitome of a well-rounded game, and proof of the toughness of the side.
A challenging match like this will give the Aggies a good test before they face No. 14 LSU the following week, a match for which they will have to be on the top of their game.
Indiana vs. Notre Dame
The Big Ten Rugby champions got back to action against Furman University Feb. 20, a match in which they tied, 41-41. The match was an opportunity to get many second-team guys some time on the pitch, and they did exactly that. Now, as the Hoosiers continue to work their way out of the nasty Midwest winter, we will see their talent continue to emerge as first-team guys see more minutes.
The Hoosiers’ Big Ten run in the fall resulted in one of their best seasons, which also included a win over Davenport, and they need to keep in shape during the spring to stay sharp for playoff time. Notre Dame might not match the skill of some sides Indiana played in the fall, but as they start to get back into playing form, the Fighting Irish should provide a nice stepping stone before they face stiffer competition such as Wheeling Jesuit and Penn State in March.
Oregon State vs. Central Washington
The PAC Rugby conference isn’t an easy one to play in, and Oregon State has found that out first hand. But the schedule isn’t getting any easier, as they will face Central Washington this weekend.
Central Washington has been on a tear in the Pacific Northwest, dismantling teams like Boise State, Washington, and Gonzaga. The Beavers will struggle against Central Washington, but it’s a needed step to becoming a team that can compete with the great teams in the PAC Rugby Conference.
Minnesota vs. Minnesota-Duluth
The Gophers had a tough conference outing in the fall, but the team continues to grow under Head Coach Chad Augeson. A step forward in that growth will be a match this weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, who is coming off of its third consecutive Division II National Championship.