St. Mary's overcame some difficult moments and an unexpected wrinkle from Utah to win their D1-A quarterfinal 24-15 Saturday in Moraga, Calif.
The visiting University of Utah Utes started former Eagle and current Utah football player Thretton Palamo at outside center, hoping to give themselves a slight boost in the backline.
But a sterling defensive effort by the St. Mary's players, even when they played much of the second half a man down, saw the Gaels through.
Wing Cooper Maloney opened the scoring for St. Mary's with a try at seven minutes. Utah flyhalf Danny Christensen got three back almost immediately with a well-taken penalty kick. But the first half was almost all St. Mary's.
"We gave up some big runs to them when we kicked," said St. Mary's captain Andrew Cook. "But we talked about how we needed our chase lines to be really crisp. Once we did that we were in better shape."
Midway through the first half flanker Rob Carlson capped off a series of pick-and-james to score for the Gaels. Then late in the first half Tim Maupin went over for St. Mary's. Max Heath, playing his first game since March 10, slotted the conversion to make it 17-3 at the break.
Utah kept pounding away around the fringes, and then things started to look up for them as St. Mary's prop Jordan Bouey was red-carded for use of the boot.
"We were doing pretty well in the scrums until then," said Cook, who moved from flanker back to his regular position of hooker after Bouey was sent off. "I still think we held on pretty well, but with a man down it was tough for us."
Utah took a lineout in St. Mary's territory and mauled it closer before sending Les Soloai over for a try nine minutes in.
St. Mary's replied with a try from Augie Heath, converted by his brother, to make it 24-8. Utah still had about 25 minutes to come back. The Utes forwards powered over for one, converted by Christensen, but that was it.
The St. Mary's defense held on against a furious Utah comeback, and did so in the final five minutes down two men after Kingsley McGowan was yellow-carded.
"It was a slopped game on both sides," said Cook. "But I really have to hand it to our forwards. They have a great pack and our guys really defended well. Don Pati is dangerous on the quick taps, and he got us on a couple, but we were able to defend the quick taps well."
St. Mary's head coach Tim O'Brien praised his team's tenacity and toughness, especially after the red card.
"We had some chances we could have exploited," he said. "I think our errors in execution were our's, while their errors in execution seemed more like the result of our pressure. I thought St. Mary's really hung in there and showed a lot of fortitude."
St. Mary's will host the team that has eliminated them from the top college playoffs the last two years, Arkansas State, next week.
St. Mary's 24
Tries: Maloney, Carlson, Maupin, A. Heath
Convs: M. Heath
Tries: Soloai, forwards