BOULDER, Colo. – A Big Ten Universities-versus-Rugby East clash will ignite the 2015 D1A Playoffs tomorrow when Wisconsin hosts Penn State.
Both the Badgers and Nittany Lions missed out on last year’s postseason, so each will likely be fired up to play in a win-or-go-home scenario. Wisconsin earned automatic qualification to the Playoffs following its 30-24 BTU Championship victory over Ohio State, while Penn State advanced beyond the regular season after a fall season that included a 4-2 conference record and a 30-6 win over No. 4 Davenport out of the Mid-South.
After a winter that lacked 15s matches for both teams, the Badgers and Nittany Lions have been ramping up their preparations for the Playoff’s opening round.
Penn State went the route of competing against senior club sides Buffalo and Schuylkill River the past two weeks. For the BTU Champions, they were fortunate enough to use their spring break to train and earn valuable game minutes in France. The week-long tour included matches against a college team and multiple semiprofessional sides.
“It was great to see that rugby culture crosses all borders, but on the field the aggression level and physicality of the game was something we had never seen before,” said Wisconsin captain Matoko Noudehou of the experience abroad. “It definitely made us stronger.”
While the Badgers improved during their time in France, it didn’t come without a price, as the team lost lock Jamie Slattery to a torn quad. The loss could be crucial as Wisconsin is already smaller than a powerful Penn State forward pack, but the Badgers have a plan to avoid some of the physical confrontations in the middle of the park.
“We know they are bigger than us, so we’re going to plan on having a very mobile offense, and try to move them around,” explained Noudehou.
Some of those big bodies for the Nittany Lions include four First Team All-Rugby East forwards: front rowers Tommy Bashara and Brian McKellar, lock Dan Metcalf, and flanker Malcom May. Slowing down the athletic pack will no doubt be a challenge for Wisconsin, as will moving the ball quickly through the hands against Penn State’s aggressive defense.
“Their defense is real strong and they like to fly up, so we’re going to have to make sure we have good hands, and get our way around them.”
As for attack, the Badgers will continue to rely on terrific support play for line-breaking offloads and quick clear-outs in the rucks.
Although Wisconsin hosts Saturday’s match via its Conference Championship, the No. 14 Badgers won’t necessarily view themselves as the favorite when they line up against the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions.
“We’ve just always had this underdog mentality, and we love being the underdog,” Noudehou said. “We know we’re small, but we play up to our strengths and we’re really looking forward to proving ourselves as Wisconsin and the Big Ten representative.”