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An Introduction of Strangers: Penn State vs Queens in NCR D1 Semis

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An Introduction of Strangers: Penn State vs Queens in NCR D1 Semis

Their regular shirts might look the same but they are very different teams. Photos Charles Bradbary and Colleen McCloskey.

One of the great links about playoffs and tours and non-conference games is that you get matchups you'd never plan for.

NCR's D1 semifinal between Penn State and Queens University Charlotte is one of those games. 

"Penn State is a storied program with 60 years of history, whereas Queens has not hit the five-year mark," said Queens Head Coach Frank McKinney. 

That's it right there. Queens remains an upstart program, albeit one tha has performed. They finished 3rd 4th in D2 and then won that division before moving up to D1 and joining the Chesapeake Conference. Now this is, of course, where it gets complicated.

Queens moved into a DIAA conference that then joined NCR, which has a DIAA designation, but took a look at the Chesapeake Conference and reasoned that its top three teams were more comparable competitively with the top D1 teams. Penn State, along with Kutztown and St. Bonaventure, play in the Rugby East, which is at once an NCR conference and a DIA conference (a state of affairs that probably doesn't make anyone particularly happy). So Queen still consider themselves one level and acknowledge that Penn State is at another level—the big difference between DIA teams and those that don't play DIA regularly is just that, the regularity. Playing a DIA team once in a while is fine, but every week is a massive test of your quality, consistency, and depth. 

From September 25 through November 6 Penn State played Kutztown, Army, St. Bonaventure, Ohio State, Notre Dame College, and Navy. Through the same period, Queens played tough teams too, like Navy and Mary Washington, Southern Virginia and Mount St. Mary's, and Virginia Tech, but it ended up being one fewer game and teams that aren't quite as strong. It makes a difference.

And Queens didn't get to play a quarterfinal game, as a positive COVID result meant Northeastern couldn't play.

"I have made the COVID call before and it is not fun," sympathized McKinney. "I know the Northeastern coaches and players were looking forward to the game."

The problem for Queens, though, is that it will have been five weeks (October 30) since they played someone.

"We decided to do a blue vs white scrimmage to get the team some contact and to simulate game like situations," said McKinney, but the challenge will be huge. "It is an opportunity for us to play a team that [GRR has] ranked in D1A. We are 0-4 against [those] teams. We are also excited to still be playing."

Queens has lost twice to Army and also lost to Navy and Life University in their history. "We consider our team in NCR D1; we are also the last team representing the Chesapeake Conference and there are three Rugby East teams still playing. This will be the first time we have played Penn State but. We are going to have a good week of training and see if we deserve our ranking."

For Penn State Head Coach Justin Hundley, this matchup is another potential pitfall in a weird year where the Nittany Lions have had basically every game be on a knife edge. Even the games that ended with a winning margin more than a try—losses to Army and Navy, and a win over Notre Dame College—were close late. Five Penn State games were decided by four points or fewer (28-26 over Mary Washington, 27-26 over Brown and 33-30 over Kutztown, and 19-15 loss to St. Bonaventure and 45-42 to Ohio State). 

"You are right Queens is not someone that has typically been on our fixture list, but they are obviously a talented group who did well in their conference," said Hundley, who pointed out that results against . Also looking at common opponents the scores are very similar."

(Navy 37-22 over PSU and 34-21 over QUC; Army 43-29 over PSU and 48-28 over QUC.)

"We have worked hard to build on our positive areas of play this season, our set piece has been very strong and allowed us to get our backline some space," added Hundley, who perhaps doesn't want things to be so close this time around. "We have proven that we can score points from almost anywhere, but need to make sure that we are tightening up our defense. We need to play the right amount of rugby in the right parts of the field and capitalize on opportunities when they present."

On September 18 Penn State beat Delaware 55-5 and that was the last time they held a team to such a low score. Kutztown, Army, OSU, and Navy all scored 30 or more against them.

"We shore up our defense and that is the tiny step that we need to make," said Hundley. "The youth on our roster has gained some valuable experience this season and I am confident that we will make the right decisions at the right times."

Penn State vs Queens University Charlotte, NCR D1 semifinal Saturday, Dec. 4 3PM ET at Penn State Berks Campus.