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The hard work of a grueling season finally paid off for San Diego State on Saturday as the Aztecs knocked off a solid Utah squad, 41-31, in the opening round of the D1A Playoffs. On Saturday in San Diego, Calif., both clubs matched each other blow for blow with SDSU outlasting its opponent in the end. With the victory, the Aztecs will face their California Conference rival, Saint Mary’s, in the D1A Quarterfinals on Saturday.
Talking with SDSU head coach Alex Lichtig after the match, he said, “It was a back and forth game with some solid play from both teams. There was no shortage of line breaks. Every time it seemed like we were going to pull away, Utah was able to battle back and find their way back into the try zone.”
“The key for us was the ability to probe the Utah defense and find areas that were advantageous to us,” Lichtig added. “From there, our ability to finish won the game in the end.”
After a delayed start due to a referee issue, the scoring began early when the SDSU scrum took on against the head deep in Utah’s territory. The stolen ball was quickly sent out to the backs where captain Nick Lupian put a statement on his running ability with a wicked stiff arm for the try. Harrison Barkham had the conversion for the 7-0 lead.
Utah responded in kind in the 14th minute when a tap penalty sent the Utes inside the five meter line. Consistent pick and goes by the forwards resulted in a Dylan Coggins try. The Utes maintained their momentum and got into scoring position five minutes later. With a scrum inside SDSU’s 22, eightman Gabe Rufflin pitched to the scrumhalf who passed to wing Rob Muhlestein on an inside line for the try. With the conversion, Utah led 12-7.
SDSU regained the lead in the 23rd minute when Lupian found Jacob Zinda on the wing for the score following a lineout. The Aztecs extended their tally to 21-12 after the referee awarded a penalty try to SDSU and a yellow card to Utah. With the man advantage, SDSU pressed the Utah defense, but was unable to find the endzone.
Still down a man, the Utah offense regrouped a set up inside the 22 following a penalty. A eightman pick by Rufflin got the ball to inside the five and Tevita Malafu finished it off with a pick and go. With the conversion, SDSU only led by two points, 21-19.
SDSU wasn’t finished in the first half as the Aztecs punched back. Taking a five meter penalty himself, lock Ryan Walls dummied inside and powered through two defenders for the try. Barkham’s fourth conversion gave the Aztecs the 28-19 advantage at the half.
Almost as soon as the second half began, SDSU’s Ari Flink was tagged for a hands in the ruck yellow card giving Utah the man advantage. The Utes capitalized on the tail end of the card as Brent Beales grabbed a bouncing ball in the SDSU backline. The forwards did the rest and Rufflin finished with the score.
Up 28-24 with 15 minutes to go, SDSU scored back-to-back tries to open up a 38-24 lead. Flink set up both of the tries with line breaks offloading to Lupian for the first one and Barkham for the second.
Not defeated, Utah put a try on the board when Beales picked up a loose ball on the side the ruck. The big prop forward rumbled through four defenders for incredible individual effort try. The conversion cut the lead to six points with less than ten minutes remaining.
The teams continued to battle for their playoff lives with SDSU adding an insurance penalty in the 78th minute. Play continued past 80 minutes with multiple SDSU penalties, but the game finally ended with a kick into touch for the Aztecs 41-31 win.
Speaking with Utah head coach Jon Law, he said, “The deciding factor was the Aztec back three who sliced up our edge defense. Our youth was exposed a bit today. Eight first-year players started for us and it looked to me that the pace and intensity of the game was a little above some of them at this point. Although they keyed on Chad Gough all day, he still showed his class. From my perspective, Gabe Rufflin was the best player on the field today.”
The game was not without its faults. A backup referee had to be called in to officiate resulting in the start time being pushed back. “Not to take anything away from the Aztec's win, but the officiating circumstances for a playoff game were unacceptable,” Law said. “A local ref was called in and honestly did his best, but this game was ahead of him and he got no help from the two silent SDSU students running touch. Very disappointed with that aspect, especially since the game was delayed almost an hour - a significant disruption to a building pregame.”
Law commented that Utah has a bright future ahead of them with so many freshman getting significant playing time. “It's difficult to win playoff rugby with so many first-year guys, but we battled for a hard 80 minutes and saw enough from our young guys to remain very optimistic about the future. Great lessons offered today about executing skills under pressure, and from our post-game one-on-ones it sounds like our boys are taking those lessons onboard in a very productive way.”
For SDSU, “Nick Lupian was superb ball in hand and solid on defense,” Lictig offered. “Ari Flink was able to find space often and the Walls brothers in the engine room stood out as well with their high flying kick off catches and big tackles around the pitch.”
Next up for SDSU is Saint Mary’s on Saturday. The teams know each other well and last played in early March when the Gaels won 57-5. Much has changed since then and Lichtig will have his squad ready. “We know that St. Mary's is an elite team that can capitalize on mistakes and grind teams down with their pattern and skill in the tackle zone. It will take a complete performance from us, but I know the boys are up for the task.”