May 7, 2016
With their team having a 10-point lead and under 12 minutes to play, the thousands of BYU men’s rugby fans who packed South Field in Provo Saturday afternoon for the the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup national championships had to be confident their Cougars were on their way to their fifth straight title.
But apparently no one told Cal.
In a stunning turn of events, the Bears put together a tremendous rally, scoring 21 straight points to reclaim the title of men’s college rugby champion as Cal defeated BYU, 40-29.
“It was a tough loss,” Cougar head coach David Smyth said. “But I told the players to keep their heads high. I think Cal deserved the victory today. But it was fairly evident to me in the last 15 minutes why we lost.”
Bear head coach Jack Clark called the Cal victory “a legendary win.”
“We played with a lot of heart,” Clark said. “Obviously they (BYU) are an extraordinary team, so it’s not easy to be in the game in the last 20 minutes. Because we were, we gave ourselves a chance to win. I told the boys in the locker room that they should be very proud. It’s a win for the ages.”
One of the key areas where the Bears dominated were on line-outs, as Cal consistently came away with the ball no matter which team was throwing it in from out of bounds.
“Traditionally that’s one of Cal’s strongest parts,” Smyth said. “They are very good in the lineouts. We’ve been good with our lineouts all year, but today we didn’t execute as well and then it became one of those mental things. We started doubting ourselves. The boys, for some reason, just weren’t believing in it.”
The Bears also managed to maintain their physical presence and actually overpowered BYU in the final minutes, something no one else in the sport has been able to do for the last four years.
“In all honesty, I thought Cal was better all around,” Smyth said. “I think they were more physical than we were at the breakdown, I think they were more dialed in at what they were going to try and do and I think we were slow on trying to respond to that.”
The Cougars reeled under the final Bear onslaught as Cal used precision kicking, superior line-out execution and sheer will to push the ball across the try line three times late in the game. Bear scrumhalf Nicklaus Boyer tallied two of the tries while center Anthony Salaber scored the other.
One of the biggest surprises was that BYU had no answer. Throughout the game, the Cougars responded when Cal made a push.
“When we had the momentum, we were good,” BYU senior Ara Elkington said. “But when we lost it, we gave up.”
BYU fell behind to start for one of the few times this year when the Bears put the first points on the board, taking advantage of a Cougar mistake and working the ball wide to where senior Lucas Dunne had a free path to lunge across the try line for the 5-0 lead.
But BYU stayed composed and found some success going up the middle.
First it was Cougar junior Alex Vorster in the 21st minute who broke a tackle and drew the defense, then dished it to Zach Webber who walked in for try. The conversion by Calvin Whiting gave the home team the two-point advantage.
Five minutes later, BYU would extend the lead further when senior Joe Pikula powered his way up the middle to create the space and then pitched it to Elkington for the try.
Once again, Whiting made the conversion to go up by nine — but Cal wasn’t going to be overwhelmed that easily.
The Bears got a nice dish of their own — from freshman Nic Mirhashem to sophomore Zachary Tavenner — to make it a 14-12 game.
The Cougars looked like they would extend the lead on four different occasions late in the first half as they pushed deep into Cal territory but great Bear defensive plays and BYU mistakes kept the home team from scoring before the break.
“The boys were in the right place a lot of times and we were moving in for tries, but then we were knocking the ball on or it was going behind us,” Smyth said. “I think if we could’ve put away those tries and those points, it would’ve been a different story. But we didn’t — and when you don’t, sometimes this is what happens.”
The Cougars got second-half tries from Ryan Blaser and Tua Laei to build the 10-point edge but the Bears just kept coming.
“In the last 15 minutes, it became more of a mental battle,” Smyth said. “I thought if we could’ve gotten one more try, it might’ve been over. They figured out some things that were working for them.”
Elkington credited Cal for being its best on the biggest stage.
“Cal just came out and they wanted it,” Elkington said. “Their expectations were high. We underestimated them, to be honest. That’s the most physical game that I’ve played this year. They have had to grind out and earn their way to the final and they earned the victory today.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at (801) 344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.