San Diego State beat Tennessee 25-12 Friday to advance to the DI-AA national championship game.
The Aztecs led the entire 80 minutes, but didn’t get completely out of Tennessee’s reach until the final whistle.
Tennessee utilized some hard-charging runs from their forwards early on to control the pace, sending prop Lucas Herrera and lock Joe Carpenter through the gainline on multiple occasions, but Tennessee made numerous unforced errors to thwart their own attack.
The Vols kicked balls out on the full in front of the 22, threw panicked passes to ground on the wing, engaged early on a scrum and knocked on an attacking lineout deep in San Diego State territory. Despite playing the better rugby between the 22-meter lines in the first 20 minutes, Tennessee had no lead to show for it.
Instead, San Diego State drew first blood with a Kaleikaumaka Konrad penalty in the 18th minute. And the Aztecs extended that lead 13 minutes later once they started playing the free-flowing rugby they’re known for and wing Brandon Villar dotted down the game's try, finishing off a backline movement that went through multiple sets of hands.
Tennessee got on the board just three minutes later when wing Graham Boyd finished a strong run in the try zone, pulling Tennessee back within a score at 8-5, which is how the half would end. But before intermission, SDSU hooker and captain Jamie Kelm was yellow-carded for obstructing a Tennessee player chasing a kick, and the penalty time spilled over into the second half.
“It’s not up to me whether I get a yellow or not, but what can you do? You play through it,” said Kelm. “I went out there at halftime, got the boys fired up and they played a great six minutes down a man.”
During that time, Konrad slotted a penalty to push the Aztec lead to 11-5.
When Kelm returned, he made an instant impact. The time watching on the sideline seemed to light a fire under him, as he started being more aggressive in the tackle and poaching multiple Tennessee balls at the breakdown, and as a result.
San Diego State went on the offensive and were threatening inside Tennessee’s 22 about 15 meters from touch. Kelm was sitting on the weak side of the breakdown hoping to get the ball thrown his way. Twice it wasn’t, so he went looking for work and carried two pick-and-jams in a matter of three phases. The second resulted in a try to extend the Aztec lead to 18-5.
Tennessee flyhalf Nick Vigder tried to pull the Vols within two scores with a penalty near the 60th minute, but the kick hit the upright and bounced directly in front of SDSU’s goal line. The Aztecs gathered it and won the ensuing ruck, but Tennessee pressured the clearance kick well, forcing it shallow and into the hands of Herrera, who passed to flanker Zach Mobius for the Vols’ second try.
After Vigder’s conversion, San Diego State led just 18-12. Tennessee had possession inside SDSU’s end a few times with a chance to score the winning converted try, but their hopes ended when Kelm stole another ball at the breakdown and reserve Nick Mazzilli took the turnover 70-plus meters for the game-clinching try at the death.
“I think we let the moment take the better of us,” said SDSU coach Matt Hawkins. “‘Oh wow, we’re in this big stadium, we’re in a semifinal,’ in that first 40 minutes. In the second 40, it was just another game of rugby.”
Tennessee’s squandered opportunities, especially in the first half, didn’t present themselves again in the second.
“We had some good go-forward, we had good strong runs, made some mistakes and they were able to capitalize on us,” said Tennessee assistant coach Andy Allen. “They were able to turn us over and that was the difference.”
Tries: Kelm, Villar, Mazzilli
Cons: Konrad (2)
Tries: Boyd, Mobius