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BYU claimed its fourth-straight national title Saturday, beating Cal 30-27 in the Varsity Cup final at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The Cougars never trailed and appeared to pull away twice, but the Bears kept coming back.
Cal made the first threat at the try line with an attacking five-meter lineout a few minutes in. The Bears won the lineout, but their maul was shoved backwards and the aggressive Cougar defense pushed the second ruck off the set piece to the 22-meter line.
BYU’s early forays into the Cal end were stymied by lock James Kondrat, who stole BYU’s first two lineouts. The Cougars and Bears then engaged in a kicking battle, with a Cal handling error leading to BYU’s first try. Seki Kofe picked up a dropped ball in the Cal backline and raced in untouched. Jonny Linehan converted, putting the Cougars up 7-0.
Ara Elkington also made his presence known early on. The BYU openside ripped the ball from a Cal maul, putting the Cougars on the front foot. He would touch the ball offensively on that possession, too, during which BYU was afforded a shot at goal. Jonny Linehan split the uprights, pushing the lead to 10-0 with 10 minutes gone.
Cal got on the board in the 15th minute after a breakdown penalty on BYU. Referee Kurt Weaver had a chat with BYU’s leadership after the whistle, warning that the Cougar tacklers needed to roll away quicker. Jake Anderson teed up the penalty and knocked it over.
Cal appeared to make a grave mistake shortly thereafter, giving BYU an attacking lineout inside the 22. The Cougars won the lineout, but Alec Gletzer was able to BYU over in a tackle via a penalty, ending the immediate threat.
The Bears picked up some momentum in a midfield scrum a minute or two later. It was BYU’s put-in, but the PAC champions drove the Cougar pack over the ball, earning a penalty. Cal kept the ball in the attacking end, but handling errors continued to thwart every chance.
After a Cal knock in the 25th minute, the Cougars scored straight from a midfield scrum. Josh Whippy split two Cal defenders, one of which Jake Anderson collided with, setting BYU free. The fullback dished to wing Josh Anderson, who carried it into pay dirt.
Cal made a big break near the half-hour mark, with Russell Webb running out of support about five meters short of the try line. Cal went through a few more phases in close, but BYU’s stout defense repelled the Bears easily.
Cal got another point blank possession and was awarded a five-meter penalty, but the Bears chose to run the ball instead of take the more conventional option of a lineout or a scrum. BYU made them pay, pushing Cal back to near the 22 again.
The Cougars were penalized again on the possession, and front rower Zane Mendenhall was sent off for 10 minutes. This time, about 15 meters from pay dirt, Cal took a scrum. However, this threatening drive ended with a knock on.
One more attacking set piece was on offer for Cal in the first half after another BYU penalty. The Bears won their lineout but were turned over and the half ended 17-3 in BYU’s favor.
Cal finally broke the seal in the third minute of the second half. BYU was penalized for being offside in an impressive, methodic Cal maul from a lineout, and Paul Bosco quickly tapped from five meters away and dove over for the score. Anderson slotted the touchline conversion, pulling the Bears within a converted score at 17-10.
BYU appeared to be away for a score in the 29th minute, but the finishing pass was forward. Off the scrum, fifth-year senior Jake Anderson made a massive play, evading three BYU defenders up the touch line and over for a try in the corner. The difficult conversion was missed, leaving BYU up 17-15.
BYU caught a break in the 58th minute when a series of reset scrums led to a Cal penalty. Linehan lined up a touch line kick from about 30 meters out and knocked over three points, extending the lead to 20-15.
Linehan kicked for points again, but this time it was for five. Josh Whippy grubbered up the touch line and a superb chase wound up in a penalty against Cal. Kyle Sumsion went quick, and a phase later Linehan cross kicked for Jared Whippy, who hauled in the ball for a try. With the conversion, BYU led 21-15.
Cal replied shortly thereafter with an enterprising play of its own. Anderson popped up a chip kick, BYU bobbled it, and Michael Bush was able to find pay dirt. Anderson’s conversion attempt was missed, but the try pulled the Bears within a converted score at 27-20.
Linehan made it a two-score game in the 66th minute. Cal was again penalized in a scrum within Linehan’s range. The Kiwi easily put up three points – 30-20.
Cal earned an important attacking platform in the 73rd minute, forcing a penalty against BYU in a heavily contested ruck. The Bears kicked to touch and had a lineout near the 22. Ball won, it was knocked on. That seemed like it would have the chance to take the wind out of Cal’s sails, but a well-executed counterattack put Anthony Salaber in for a try and the result was back in doubt. Anderson converted, making it 30-27 with five minutes to play.
Cal earned a penalty and an attacking lineout about 30 meters out. The Bears had been rock solid in the lineout all day, but they couldn’t bring this one down cleanly, and a pick from the deck was knocked on. BYU drained what it thought was the rest of the clock before kicking to touch. However, time was not up.
Cal took the lineout seamlessly, and a charging run forward pushed the Bears toward the game winner, but the ball was lost forward on the next run, giving BYU its fourth-straight national title.