This weekend the Rocky Mountain Conference will play their conference semifinals as teams push for an automatic qualification spot in the National Playoffs come May. BYU in their first year back in the conference will be favorites to take it all, but there is still plenty that needs to get done before they are able to be crowned victors.
BYU vs. Air Force:
#6 BYU will host Air Force, in the first semifinal of the weekend. While on paper it may seem lopsided game between a Top 10 team and one that is unranked, Air Force has been sharpening their tools in recent weeks against other Top 10 teams such as Navy and Army. They are definitely ready to embrace the challenge that BYU poses.
As Air Force has been rubbing shoulders with some of the best in the nation, one thing has stood out to head coach Denny Merideth more than anything else: the need for control. “We have a lot of young guys who can be over enthusiastic so being able to control their aggression and control their approach. We’re trying to coach them to control their approach to the game.” Control, especially late in games has been something that has hindered Air Force this year. They lost to Colorado State twice, and on both occasions, it was because of letting the Rams score last. This weekend they will need to make sure they are controlled for the full 80.
BYU contrarily have not had the same issue of ups and downs. They have been up the whole season, ripping through their opponents one by one. In their three games this season they have outscored their opponents a whopping, 264-11. They are yet to come up against the same caliber opposition as Air Force has, but they will undoubtedly like their chances to continue their hot run of form, and keep their impressive for and against margin at an impeccable level.
Air Force are no strangers to BYU and they know full well what to expect from the Cougars. “We’re expecting a lot of experience. We know can expect a size differential. They probably haven’t had the number of matches that we’ve had this season. We need to have a game where we can adapt to what we see on the pitch.” Merideth explained.
Traditionally BYU has been known for their big bodies, their skill and their ability to run teams around. This weekend won’t be any different. They will look to use their size advantage to help suck Air Force into the middle of the field. From there they will then, look to spread the ball wide or rely on offloading create and find holes in the defense that they can then exploit. In particular they will be looking to use their electrifying wing, Ben Webber to the full extent. Webber leads the team in tries scored and has proven to be unmarkable for his opposing numbers.
For Merideth, the game will come down to three areas: ball retention, pressure in defense and find gaps. “Primarily is ball retention going into contact/ We’re looking at being able to present a defense that puts them under pressure; and we are looking for the opportunity to exploit space. Those are the three things the we are trying to get into the player’s minds.” The key to achieving this for Air Force will be Elliot Higgins, their captain. Merideth is looking for him to lead from the front and carry the torch.
Expect BYU to be led by their fullback Connor Parry in the backs and for Seen Tarawhiti, their blindside flanker, to take charge in the forwards. Both of these players have an unrivaled ability to get around the pitch and dictate the tempo of the game. For Air Force to play the style of game they want to achieve, they will first have to find a way to nullify these two.
Air Force will head into the game as underdogs, but given their experience against Top 10 teams, no one can count them out until the final whistle.
Colorado State vs. Utah State:
In the second semifinal, last year’s conference champion, Colorado State will be taking on Utah State for a trip to next weekend’s championship game. Colorado State has been in fine form winning all their games, bar one close loss to Colorado at the beginning of the season. Utah State have gone 2-2 in conference play. Beating tough Wyoming side that is on the rise, but losing twice to BYU. They’ll have their work cut out for them as they enter Saturday’s fixture.
Utah State’s task has been made significantly harder given the heavy attrition rate they’ve encountered so far, this year. As coach Zach Root explains, it has been tough for them, but they have proven to find success. “We’ve lost quite a few starters to injury this year so I’ve had to see what our depth is like and if guys can step up and play high quality rugby for me. It’s been pretty successful across the board.”
Colorado State has been more fortunate, in the injury sense, as the majority of their players have played the full five games for them this year. Having a healthy and cohesive unit will be a massive boost for them as they head into Saturday’s match; especially when considering they will be without coach Mose Timoteo. The Rams won’t be too concerned though as his shoes are being filled by the more than capable Sean O’Leary, who has been a fixture at the top level of rugby for quite some time.
Root is expecting Saturday to be another physical encounter for his team, as he notes that CSU is a big team that likes to run downhill. Because of this they’ve been working on defense and set pieces to ensure that they don’t give way in the battle upfront. However, for Root’s side to be successful he really feels that it will come down to execution on offense. “For us we have to clean up our offense. We get hit with a lot of penalties and mistakes. We’ll need to clean up those simple things.”
The Rams will be looking to distribute the ball evenly between the forwards and backs. Whereas most teams will have one player leading the try scoring efforts, CSU has six players tied with two tries a piece. With so many options to strike from, Utah State will have to make sure they control the set piece and the breakdown. This will be the bread and butter for the Rams and if they can consistently set a good platform to attack from, it will be a long day in the office for Utah State.
“Ian Newton has stepped up big keeping guys motivated and he shows up 100% on the field for every minute of the match.” Morgan Smith, is another player that Root noted. He explained that Smith in the last few weeks has come out of the woodwork and really helped to lead and motivate the side as they enter this crucial period of the season.
Max Whelan will be the man the Rams look to this weekend. Not only is he one of the top scorers on the team, he is one of the best athletes on the field. He has a strong understanding of the game and can read how the play around him is evolving better than most. Playing at inside center he plays a valuable role of being a key second receiver when they need the ball to go wide but he can also slot into the first receiver role comfortably to help the Rams split the field whenever they desire.
With the weather set to hold up with dry and sunny conditions, each team shouldn’t have to deviate from their game plans too much. This game will be won by the team that can stick to their internal structures with the greater consistency; or by whichever team does the best job of making the other team abandon their structure. It will be a physical contest with a fair amount of scoring to boot.