Cal dodged a bullet.
Army attacked Cal on four wheels, but Cal escaped with a tough, high-scoring win to take the title in the Cal Invitational, 50-41.
While the Bears and Black Knights handled their Saturday matchups rather easily, the final was a whole different story, as it became arguably the most entertaining match of the year.
“I think it was a wake-up call for our program,” said sophomore prop Damon Wiley. “We have been kind of breezing by with some of these teams.”
The Bears are known to use their feet and outrun their opponents, but Army displayed speed of its own and made life difficult on the defensive end.
The pinnacle of the Black Knights’ speed was when a defender caught up to sophomore wing Sam Cusano, one of Cal’s fastest players, and tackled him inches left to the end zone, causing a knock-on.
The Black Knights used their feet as well, but in a different way. Army kicked the ball forward very effectively, positioning its lineouts very close to Cal’s end zone and setting up golden opportunities to score.
The first half was a game of runs; the Bears began the game with a 17-0 run, but the Black Knights responded with 15 unanswered points of their own to climb back into the game.
While Cal could afford to make mistakes against UCLA, a far less talented team, even the smallest mistake against Army came at a cost to the Bears. Cal was ahead at the half against Army by only one conversion, 24-22.
“(Army) didn’t make a lot of mistakes — you know, they played kind of close to source of possession kind of game,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark.
Army started the second half strong, as it snatched the ball from the air after its kick to start the half, a feat it accomplished several times in this game.
Good end zone defense from Cal only postponed the inevitable. After they blockaded the Bears inside their 22-meter line, the Black Knights took their first lead with 33 minutes left in the match, 29-24.
Cal quickly responded to get the lead back just four minutes later, 31-29, on a try by junior flanker Nic Mirhashem and conversion by fifth-year flyhalf Jamie Howells.
That score was the beginning of a 21-0 run over the next 14 minutes. Once the dust settled, Cal had a 45-29 lead.
Army bounced back despite another bad pass on its end, one that might have broken its courage. Army junior flyhalf Drew Zagula broke through an off-balance defense after a bad pass and scored a try, cutting the Bears’ lead to 45-34.
A fair share of whistles against the Bears helped the Black Knights maintain long possessions. Army took advantage of the calls and cut Cal’s lead to 4 points with only five minutes left.
“We were pretty heavily penalized, and I’m sure that has something to do with their possessions,” Clark said.
Army had the chance to complete the comeback as it got the ball to lineout, but fifth-year No. 8 Thomas Robles stole the ball up in the air. Later in the possession, sophomore center Christian Dyer scored after a broken play to ice the game with three minutes left, 50-41.
Unlike in other games, the Bears were forced to spend more time on the defensive end this weekend and successfully fended off the Black Knight attacks to stay undefeated at home.
“That’s what we need going into the postseason, we’re going to have games where we share 50 percent of the ball,” Robles said. “We need to be able to play hard defense — we did that here in the goal line; we did it all day.”
To advance to the final, Cal beat UCLA, 58-3, but the game was unexpectedly close early on.
The Bears and the Bruins clashed hard in the first 20 minutes, and both teams only put up one penalty kick each, 3-3. With the high amount of turnovers, the match seemed like a volleyball game, as teams traded control of the ball after only a couple passes.
“Really unhappy with the turnovers,” Clark said. “I thought in some instances we were trying to do too much, and that hurt us.”
Cal, however, would rattle off 55 unanswered points, beginning with a try by freshman wing Marcus Shankland and conversion by senior flyhalf Matthew Coyle at the 24-minute mark.