The #1-ranked Saint Mary's Gaels held off #3 Cal in a thrilling regular-season finale between the two longtime rivals Saturday, with Saint Mary's emerging the 21-12 victor in Moraga, CA.
The game was the latest in a long rivalry between the two programs, which goes back to the early days of the 20th Century. This game was not a conference game, but had playoff ramifications, as the D1A seedings are based on rankings. So the winner would very likely have taken the #1 seed into the D1A Round of 16.
As it was, Saint Mary's retained its #1 ranking in a tense, physical encounter in which both teams saw prime scoring opportunities go begging.
Gaels Draw First Blood
Cal looked very dangerous out wide and looked to get sophomore wing Sam Cusano free. But the Saint Mary's defense was against aggressive. It was, in fact, the Gaels who drew first blood, with pressure forcing a ruck penalty and scrumhalf Sean Yacoubian - who was excellent all day - putting the kick over for a 3-0 lead.
Cal replied, and with an excellent string of passes, with center Seth Purdy getitng his pass off from the ground, put Justin Dunn in at the corner. Dunn needed every inch of his 6-4 frame to stretch over before being put into touch.
That made it 5-3 for Cal, but Saint Mary's came back with a penalty goal from Yacoubian. It was a fairly unlucky penalty for Cal as flyhalf Troy Lockyear dropped the ball and it bounced forward onto a teammate. The penalty made it 6-5 for Saint Mary's.
Both teams had prime opportunities to score after that. Cal was right on the Saint Mary's line and coughed the ball up in the tackle. Saint Mary's, also, was right near the line and lost the ball in contact. That was part of the story of the day, with the hits coming very hard, and often jarring the ball loose.
Body Blow By Saint Mary's
Late in the first half, Saint Mary's garnered another prime scoring chance. A turnover in the Saint Mary's 22 produced a counter-attack. But the Gaels, and then the Bears lost the ball in contact, leading to Yacoubian sending a box kick down the sideline.
His only chaser was prop Peyton Telea-Ilalio, but he did enough to delay fullback Aidan Flynn, who was then smashed by prop Nick Hryekewicz. The ball shot backward to the Cal goalline, and while Cusano slid down on the ball to prevent a try, he carried the ball over the tryline, giving Saint Mary's a scrum five meters out.
There followed a series of scrums in which Saint Mary's tried to drive Cal back over the line. Cal's scrum just held, despite a couple of penalties, but eventually everyone was so engrossed in what was happening with the scrum that Yacoubian was able to hit center Tavite Lopeti bursting onto the ball and Lopeti was over.
With the conversion Saint Mary's led 13-5, and it stayed that way until halftime, even as the Bears were knocking on the door before the break.
Yacoubian punished a Cal infraction (playing the ball on the ground), for a 16-5 lead early in the second half. But Cal wasn't going away.
The Bears showed enormous composure and grit to defend their line. Just as Saint Mary's appeared to have scored (two possible tries were called back), and looked to threaten again, the ball came out the ruck.
Cal scrumhalf Keanu Andrade pounced on the loose ball and broke away. He fed Cusano on the wing. He raced to the Saint Mary's 22 but was chopped down by Wesley Chock, but was able to offload back to Andrade, who finished off a momentum-shifting, 95-meter classic.
Lockyear slotted the extras to cut the Saint Mary's lead to 16-12.
Gaels Seal it
Cal was right back threatening and was inches from scoring. But once again, thundering tackles stopped that effort. With Cusano thwarted that way, the Gaels were able to work their way out of trouble. Moments later Ronan Murphy - playing No. 8 in place of the injured Vili Helu - burst onto a flat pass and was through. But referee Phil Akroyd had inadvertently blocked a Cal tackler, and that play had to come back for a Saint Mary's scrum.
From that scrum, however, the Gaels got the try they wanted. Flyhalf Mike McCarthy popped a kick into the corner where wing Tom Brusati ran it down to score the clincher.
Cal had a little time to reply, but that was it.
For Cal, it was a frustrating game, in that the Bears had possession and territory and go-forward at critical moments and came away with nothing. For Saint Mary's, winning this game without their hardest-working forward, Anthony Rodriguez, and arguably their best player, Helu, was an enormous achievement.
That makes it four Saint Mary's victories over Cal in the last seven years.
Saint Mary's 21
Tries: Lopeti, Brusati
Pens: Yacoubian 3
Tries: Dunn, Andrade