The 50-14 final score last Friday in Provo, Utah, is arguably remarkably unrepresentative of the Bears’ talent — the team ranked No 4. in the nation. Yet, the large gap on the score sheet against BYU raises questions about the depth of the Cal rugby program and the ability of its substitutes to impact games in the postseason.
Cal’s usual reserves have failed to shine against Brigham Young University, a rival team for the Bear. Incapable of imposing their dominant game plan from the start of the game, the Bears gave up tries to the Cougars and trailed from start to finish.
Cal head coach Jack Clark said to Cal Bears last week that this match could be a pitfall for the blue and gold. He was torn between aligning a new lineup to preserve his best players, defeated back-to-back by Navy and St Mary’s, or assembling a very competitive lineup in Utah to finish the regular season on a positive note.
Given that Cal already knew its first-round opponents in the D1A playoffs, it seems as though Cal chose the first option: A fresh lineup, captained by inside center Mack Fell, would face the 9-2 Cougars.
The game was rescheduled to Friday morning from Saturday, as originally scheduled, at the request of BYU, giving the team and its new lineup a very short time to prepare.
The low temperatures recorded in Utah on Friday seemed to have frozen the Bears from the moment the referee blew the whistle to start the game. BYU quickly took possession of the ball and sieged Bear territory.
The Cougars’ offensively oriented game strategy first paid off in the 13th minute, when their tighthead prop crashed in the try zone; their fullback was unable to add the extras. It was then time in the 21st minute for the backline to show its rapid execution of patterns to send off its right winger on the score sheet, followed by a forward try only five minutes later.
Ultimately, the Cougars tallied three unanswered tries in the first half to make it 19-0 after 40 minutes. Cal tried hard to regain possession but multiplied unsuccessful offensive phases. The team remained scoreless in the first half.
Then the second half came along — new half, same Bears. They conceded two converted tries by Cougar flankers in the 42nd and 52nd minutes.
The Bears found their salvation in right winger Alex Brundage, who dashed past BYU’s defense to open Cal’s score count. Senior fly-half Nate Salter, Cal’s replacement goalkicker, successfully subbed for Max Schumacher and nailed the conversion.
Apart from this run, Cal remained on the defensive and failed to contain the BYU backline, which clinched a sixth try courtesy of their left winger. Their captain, who guided BYU to a resounding victory, also dotted down in Cal’s endzone.
The final 10 minutes saw both teams filling the score sheet with a try each. One for BYU’s fullback — who collected 20 points in total — and one for Cal’s own Kealan O’Connell only five minutes after he entered the field. Salter converted the ball run by his teammate and ended the game on a 2-on-2.
The game ended with a 50-14 final score, which handed Cal its worst defeat of the season in terms of point differential.
Cal let BYU reach its try zone eight times and had trouble organizing a productive offensive display. However, the preparation for the first round of nationals should see the Bears’ usual starters regaining their spots to face Cal Poly in Strawberry Canyon.
Following this defeat, the Bears will play in — and host — the first round of the 2023 D1A National Collegiate Championship playoffs Saturday at 1 p.m. on Witter Rugby Field.