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In a clash of top ranked clubs, #2 Saint Mary’s College of California beat #3 Brigham Young University, 27-12, for the first time in three years. BYU had a five game winning streak against Saint Mary’s dating back to 2014. However, on Saturday in Moraga, Calif., the Gaels used BYU’s penalty trouble to their advantage to shut out the Cougars in the first half then outscore their opponent in the second to earn the home victory.
“Composure [on both sides of the ball] and being pretty steady on defense [were keys to the game],” Saint Mary’s head coach Tim O’Brien said. “We were patient and real steady on defense. A lot of trust and confidence in each other.”
“There were over 30 penalties awarded during the match,” O’Brien added. “The penalties put BYU into some difficult spots. Between being slippery and penalties, it made it pretty tough... It was a matter of who could get out of whose way.”
After getting into scoring position in first five minutes, the Gaels were first on the board. Off a ten-meter scrum, eightman Vili Helu passed to scrumhalf Holden Yungert who ran a designed set piece play to Chris McDonell for the try. Automatic Dylan Audsley connected on the conversion to make it 7-0. The Gaels continued to pressure BYU for possession and territory and notched an Audsley penalty in the 26th minute to extend the lead to 10-0.
BYU had two excellent opportunities to cut into the SMC lead, but came up short. First, Josh Whippy kicked to right sideline perfectly, but wing Kevin Schofield dropped it for the easy score. Right at halftime, the Cougars got on the front foot and were on the goal line. Saint Mary’s stripped the ball from BYU ending the drive.
St Mary's came out of the half looking like the more composed team and almost scored to increase the lead, but settled for an Audsley penalty in the 58th minute. BYU finally established some continuity and sustained pressure to mount a forwards try by Tua Laei. The subsequent conversion was wide; however, the Gaels led, 13-5, with 15 minutes left.
The final ten minutes of the match was intense with a flurry of scoring. The Gaels began with a Helu try after consistent pressure inside the 22. Saint Mary’s looked to threaten again, but Josh Whippy disrupted a pass and ran it back 80 meters for the intercept try. Whippy quickly converted his own try to trail by eight points with about five minutes remaining.
On the restart, Saint Mary’s kicked deep and BYU attempted to run it out. A Cougar kick ahead found Audsley, who carved up the defense bringing the ball inside the 22. BYU was called for a ruck infraction at ten meters and Yungert quick tapped the ball. BYU tackled the scrumhalf short of the goal line, but the referee awarded Saint Mary’s a penalty try for not back ten. Audsley chipped in the points after to extend the lead to 15 points.
BYU attempted to score in the final two minutes getting down to the SMC 22, but a fatal knock-on ended the match in the Gaels favor, 27-12.
Commenting on his opponent after the match, O’Brien remarked, “BYU wasn’t as precise as usual. BYU is a beastly team. Fast, very athletic, creates their own vertical gaps if there aren’t any there. They feed on a lot of momentum and just couldn’t get the momentum.”
“We were like a bunch of bugs chasing after them and putting them down,” O’Brien continued. “Will it ever happen again against BYU? I don’t know, but it happened Saturday. They were just not as precise of usual, penalties made for just a little bit of chop in a game where we were a bit more composed.”
Coach O’Brien praised the effort of eightman Vili Helu on the pitch, but a lot of overall credit went to the captain, Kevin O’Connor. “We give Kevin a lot of freedom here to manage the team as he sees fit. He is doing a nice job pulling as much as he can with the guys on the team.”
BYU will get its rematch against SMC on March 11th in Provo, Utah to complete the home and home. In the meantime, the Gaels contend with Cal Poly and San Diego State, while the Cougars face Colorado and Air Force. If that were not enough, these two powerhouses could potentially meet again in April in the D1A National Collegiate Playoffs.