Cal defeated BYU 21-14 in front of a crowd of almost 10,000 at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday evening, winning the first ever College Premier Division title.
Perhaps 90 percent of that crowd was, naturally, for BYU, and they made sure you heard it.
The Cougars certainly had the run of player early, forcing a penalty in Cal territory that Shaun Davies, uncharacteristically, put short. Another penalty near the Cal 22 prompted a kick to touch for the lineout, perhaps a sign that Davies wasn’t completely confident in his boot. Whatever the reason, the option yielded no points as Cal stole the ball at the lineout.
But BYU kept up the pressure. Only a brilliant, weaving run by Blaine Scully could get the Bears out of their own end, and then only for a short time.
Cal didn’t get a clear attacking opportunity until 15 minutes into the game. At that point, BYU’s Jared Whippy and Dylan Lubbe combined to put Lubbe through the Cal line. Center Seamus Kelly made a brilliant tackle, popped to his feet, and poached the ball. Davies dove on top of the Cal center and was penalized, setting up a Cal lineout 12 meters into the BYU half.
Cal mauled that lineout ball and forced an offside penalty, and flyhalf James Bailes lined up a 40-meter shot. Amid some very loud booing (despite BYU Coach David Smyth’s signals to quiet down) Bailes just missed. Still 0-0 at 17 minutes.
Cal, however, seemed to have their tails up after that, and put in an extended amount of time in the BYU 22. A long series of phases, started with a half break from Bailes and using both forwards and backs ended with a penalty five meters away. Cal took the lineout, but struggled against the BYU counter-push. Finally, off the fallen maul, captain and blindside flanker Derek Asbun scooted out wide and just barely touched down amid some several tacklers. Bailes hit the conversion and at just under 24 minutes Cal led 7-0.
The physicality ramped up after that. Danny Barrett picked from a scrum in Cal’s end and went right at Lubbe, knocking the BYU flyhalf on his backside. The charge sent a message, as did the ensuing run down the left wing by James McTurk. Cal seemed set to score another as they ran a move from a scrum that seemed set to put Kelly free.
But the ball bounced off the center’s chest, and BYU fullback Andrew Harrison cleaned it up and booted it downfield, seeing the ball bounce once and then into touch 50 meters downfield.
Cal continued to pressure, but BYU’s counter-rucking, especially that of prop Mikey Su’a, was superb and forced some key turnovers. Su’a was paying for it, though, as he needed some medical attention 30 minutes in.
At 34 minutes Cal ran a simple crash in the centers. BYU made the tackle, but did not release the tackled player and Bailes lined up a 33-meter shot in front of the posts, which he hit easily for a 10-0 lead.
From the restart a strong charge from flanker Sosaia Leaaetoa forced Bailes to loft his kick downfield too high. Jared Whippy caught it and sent a risky pass to his left. Back in support, though, was lock Viliami Vimahi, who passed to Lubbe. The flyhalf had Ryan Roundy on his outside but elected to grubber ahead. It worked well enough, as Cal had to kick to touch and made no ground in doing so. BYU won the lineout, powered ahead, and flanker Apenisa Malani was ushered over the line to thunderous cheers from the partisan crowd.
Davis slotted the conversion, and with a minute to go in the half, BYU was back in the game 10-7.
Cal, like the champions they are, were not fazed and tried to get that try back. Pressuring in the BYU 22 they caught a break. Roundy was very quick off the line to make a tackle, and referee Chris Henshall called Roundy offside. Bailes lined up a sitter and sat it. 13-7.
And that was halftime. Cal had weathered the initial surge of emotion from the Cougars, but were not clear by any means.
The intensity couldn’t quite stay at that level for a full 80 … or could it?. The second half started with Cal pushing into the BYU end, and only some outstanding defense from the Cougars kept Cal tryless. Finally, it seemed as if BYU could not only lift the siege, but break through, however as the crowd roared on a counter attack, referee Henshall was calling everyone back for an offside call in front of the posts. No problem for Bailes. 16-7.
BYU roared back with their best sequence in about 20 minutes. Vimahi, Roundy, Whippy, and Ray Forrester all got involved in a movement that finally saw Vimahi set free by Lubbe. The lock popped a pass to the onrushing Leaaetoa, but the flanker couldn’t hold it. Scrum Cal in their 22. The Cougars, though, sense the need to make this pay off, and wheeled the scrum to get the put-in. Another half break for the Cougars. Lubbe one tackler away, and his pass inside is dropped again. Scrum five meters out. No shenanigans from Cal this time. Barrett picked and then Bailes cleared.
Perhaps now it was time for a big play, and it came from an unlikely source, although one we’d seen before this season. Scurmhalf Connor Ring, who is so automatic with his passes, faked the pass and went on his own, caught BYU napping and put his team in the BYU 22. After a few more phases, Cal launched a play off the scrum. Kelly raced through a small gap and pumped his fist in triumph as he scored.
Cal led 21-7, but Bailes missed a makeable conversion, leaving BYU with some serious hope with 17 minutes to go, as the Cougars could tie it with two scores.
And BYU made something happen. The Cougars spun the ball wide. Hoseki Kofe made a smart move, leaving alone a high pass that was in fact intended for Zeke Mendenhall. The wing went about 50 meters before being tackled, but Cal was penalized. BYU pushed for the lineout, and then got a free kick, from which they used to set up a crash play, Lubbe to flanker Leaaetoa. He was over to more thunderous cheers, and Davies hit the conversion to make it 21-14 with ten minutes to go.
The crowd really made its presence felt after that, shaking Rio Tinto with chants of BYU. Now it would come down to which team would get a break, and could the other team use it.
First break went to BYU. Cal wing James McTurk kicked ahead, and it went out on the full. The Cougars had an attacking lineout, but an unnecessary kick to space from Lubbe put Cal, specifically the fleet-footed Dustin Muhn, in the driver’s seat.
Momentum, ever so slightly, shifted back and forth. With just over four minutes to go BYU got a penalty at midfield for offside. They kicked for the lineout, but Cal, whose own lineout had been fallible much of the evening, stole the throw. Back to the drawing board for the Cougars.
Cal continued to weather the storm, getting just enough go-forward to keep themselves out of trouble. With time winding down, Cal started a series of pick-and-drives. But they bobbled the ball, and gave BYU perhaps one last shot, a scrum five meters inside the Cal half. In fast , they had another, as they took another scrum five meters downfield. That’s when the Cal pack exploded, shoving the surprised Cougars back on their haunches. The ball turned over, and Cal had a chance to run out the clock once more.
Cal won the ball, just barely, and Scully booted it into touch, and that was the game.
It was an exciting and well-played game in many ways, but a strange one, too. Perceived strengths for each outfit didn’t pan out. Cal’s lineout was imperfect, Ryan Roundy was contained. And homefield advantage was certainly not quite enough.
Tries: Asbun, Kelly
Pens: Bailes 3
1. Deterding, 2. N. Barrett, 3. Besser, 4. Hyjer, 5. Hodson, 6. Asbun (c), 7. Rooke, 8. D. Barrett, 9. Ring, 10. Bailes, 11. McTurk, 12. Gallinger, 13. Kelly, 14. Muhn, 15. Scully
16. Mohr, 17. Davenport, 18. Daly, 19. Law, 20. Bosco, 21. Aronson, 22. Braun, 23. Anderson
Tries: Malani, Leaaetoa
Convs: Davies 2
1. Su'a, 2. Tilialo, 3. Forrester, 4. Bonham, 5. Vimahi, 6. Malani, 7. Leaaetoa, 8. Roundy, 9. Davies, 10. Lubbe, 11. Mendenhall, 12. Whippy, 13. Kofe, 14. Nicholls, 15. Harrison
16. Harker, 17. Tuaone, 18. Mount, 19. Hafoka, 20. Webber, 21. Wiscombe, 22. Funaka, 23. Price