Penn State and Army meet Saturday in State College, Pa. to decide the Rugby East championship, with both the Black Knights and Nittany Lions sitting at 5-0.
Both have already clinched a quarterfinal berth, but Saturday’s match will determine who travels to the Mid-South champion (Life or Arkansas State) and who hosts the Mid-South runner-up in the opening round of the playoffs. It’d be hard to overstate the importance of playing at home in the playoffs, as three of last year’s four quarterfinal hosts advanced to the semifinals.
“If we have to travel, we’ll travel, but we certainly love playing here in State College in front of our own fans,” said Penn State fullback Joe Baker, “and if we could, we think that would be a huge advantage going into the first round.”
Saturday marks Penn State’s third-consecutive home match. The Nittany Lions are coming off the heels of a very tight win over in-state rival Kutztown, while the Black Knights are fresh off of a bye week.
When Penn State and Army met last spring, the Black Knights’ 50-26 win at West Point eliminated the Nittany Lions from playoff contention. This year, returning virtually the entire team from last year’s loss, Penn State feels it's poised to win the conference and pick up some playoff wins.
“Last year was definitely a learning year for us, and I think we’ve really grown and come together. When you have two years under your belt, pretty much with the same 15 guys on the field, you start to learn how guys play, what they’re going to do before they do it,” said Baker.
“And I think we’ve really gotten to that point as a team, so I think it will help us going forward, certainly in pressure situations with Army and then going to the playoffs.”
Baker, the flyhalf-turned-fullback, says Army, though led by flyhalf Will Holder, is a really well-balanced squad.
“When you look at Army, you’re looking at a big, physical, disciplined team. We know that from the get go. Obviously Will is a tremendous player. We’ve got to shut him down at 10. They’ve got a good 13 out there. Everyone, from top to bottom on their team, can play, so we’ve got to be ready to play.”
Kickoff is set for 5pm ET.