The opening round of the 2017 D1A Playoffs continues Saturday in a rematch from earlier this season between No. 14 Arizona and No. 18 Air Force. The two foes met in Las Vegas last month in a neutral site battle on the pitch, with the Wildcats prevailing 30-28 in a back-and forth-affair.
“That match in Vegas was the key to our season. We came away from that knowing exactly what to build on, what to change, and how to do it,” said Wildcats head coach Sean Duffy. “We take conference champions very seriously, and we knew it would be a close one with a well-coached and disciplined team like Air Force.”
Arizona ultimately prevailed in wild fashion in that March matchup. Leading 28-23 late in the game Air Force had possession, but a pass snatched out of the air by Wildcats wing Ben Joseph was taken and dotted down to tie the game. The ensuing conversion by Luke Thayer gave the lead back to Arizona with hardly any time remaining for the Zoomies to respond.
Air Force head coach Denny Meredith acknowledged that aside from the late hiccup, his team took the lion’s share of penalties that proved a challenge in itself to overcome. It boiled down to playing smarter rugby, and with playoff atmosphere now in the mix, Meredith hopes his players are much better disciplined at home.
That includes taking extra caution in the several notable offensive threats for the Wildcats, including sophomore fullback Jack San Pietro who played a big role on offense in the team’s 52-12 victory over Notre Dame. Meredith was also quick to note that Joseph and flanker Ryan Fitzpatrick will also be on Air Force’s radar on Saturday.
“Obviously we intend not to throw the ball directly to Ben this time around,” Meredith commented. “Watching Ryan’s development is a pleasure and we will respect his presence on the pitch.”
The West Conference champions have been idle, however, since the meeting in Las Vegas. A cancelled match nearly a month ago versus Colorado State has kept the Zoomies out of 15s competition. Since the fall, Meredith used this open schedule to get extra playing time for non-starters in order to get more experience down the depth chart. Combined with an inter-squad scrimmage a few fresh faces have emerged that could play to the Zoomies’ advantage in the opening round.
“Getting experience for our younger players in high level matches is critical to rebuilding a sustainable top-notch team,” Meredith added. “The extra experience gained by these players will be borne out during the championship series…Austin Lyons growth at lock has been phenomenal and is the perfect example of a young man developing his potential.”
The junior lock made an impact during fall play for Air Force and has continued to display dynamic leadership in spring play versus Top 20 teams Saint Mary’s, BYU and Lindenwood. The team, however, has gone winless in the spring aside from a nonconference comeback win against Arizona State.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, have cooled off themselves following a disastrous outing versus Utah. It snapped a three-game winning streak but in the process was a lesson for Arizona ahead of a hopeful playoff bid.
“Utah was a wake-up call for our guys. It helped us as a staff reiterate the importance of little things and how those little things can add up to become big things, both positive and negative,” Duffy added. “If you do little things right, they’ll add up and help you. If you do a lot of little things wrong, it can add up and destroy you.”
Returning to the quarterfinals has been a goal for Arizona all year following their 36-14 defeat to Utah in 2016. On the road they face an Air Force team that will have six absent starters, but replaced by players that Meredith admitted proved their capability in spring action. The additional leadership by the senior duo of West Conference Back of the Year Mitch Cochell and Dylan Brown has transferred well to the rest of the team after their time at the All-American Identification Camp in January. Fellow senior lock Hunter Hancock will also be a notable problem for Arizona who has steadily regained intensity and confidence on the pitch since returning from injury.
As Duffy put it, Arizona’s focus is revolving around its own team more than the focus on the opposition.
“We know Air Force is well coached, disciplined, and fit, so we’ll need to be clinical in what we do,” said Duffy. “We have yet to play our best rugby, so that’s a goal we’re still striving for. We’re not the seed we want, that’s a result of our play. But we know that it’s really just about getting in, and playoffs is often about who gets hot at the right time. We like what we’ve done in training since Utah, and we’ll hopefully see that benefit us on Saturday in a tough place to play.”