Cal escapes from Utah with win on late penalty kick

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The Cal rugby team wasn’t going to let it happen twice in a row.

Coming off an embarrassing 22-20 loss to Cal Poly a week ago, the Bears found themselves in an eerily similar situation Saturday against Utah, trailing 22-20 with just two minutes left on the clock.

“We’d been there before,” said junior Seamus Kelly. “We just had to keep calm out there, and not lose our heads.”

For the second week in a row, Cal had failed to secure a late lead, this time allowing Utah to score a last-minute try and a go-ahead conversion in what looked like another late game meltdown for the Bears.

The Utes spent most of the next two minutes trying to run out the clock. But junior Tanner Mohr stole the ball in a ruck, setting his team up deep in Utah territory with almost no time left. As time expired, the Utes were called for a penalty, leading to a game deciding kick from fullback Jake Anderson in a raucous Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“It was the biggest stage I’ve ever played in,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to strike it as well as I could. I didn’t know if it was going to go through until the last second.”

Anderson’s kick just snuck over the crossbar, and the Bears (11-1) escaped with a 23-22 win — their second one-point margin of victory in 2012.

To open the game, neither team managed to find any offensive rhythm. Riding their tough defense, Cal took an 11-0 lead into halftime — but should have had a much bigger cushion. The Bears were constantly putting pressure on the Utes (4-3) but failed to turn golden opportunities into points.

“The Utah team was more physical than us, which is a little bit disappointing,” said coach Jack Clark. “Our decision making left a little bit to be desired.”

After the break, Utah came out as the aggressor, cutting Cal’s lead to one on a try from scrumhalf Don Patti and a penalty kick from flyhalf Danny Christensen.

The Bears continued to struggle offensively, settling for penalty kicks. Flyhalf Alex Aronson struggled for the second straight match, only converting 3-of-6 attempts, extending Cal’s lead to 17-10.

But the Bears couldn’t put the Utes away. Up 17-15, Cal failed to turn a strong series of play into a try and resorted to a penalty kick from Anderson, extending its lead to just five with 10 minutes to play.

“They came out on fire,” Kelly said. “I thought they played harder than us today. They were more aggressive, and they just seemed like they wanted it more.”

The lead proved too slim for Cal, as the squad found itself on the wrong side of a two-point difference in the closing moments of the match after blowing a lead — just as it had against Cal Poly. And despite the different outcome, the team is still aware of the dangerous trend.

“It’s definitely concerning,” Kelly said. “We have talent on the team, it’s just a question of figuring out what it takes to win. Everybody needs to start realizing that it’s not an easy task to win week in and week out.”