It was back to basics for Cal rugby Saturday afternoon, when the team took on Penn State at home in the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup semifinals.
With a potential berth in their second-straight final at stake, the Bears put on a clinical performance on both sides of the ball, coming out with a 35-14 win.
Once again, the team’s unique combination of talented underclassmen and experienced veterans, who have been forced together because of injuries and upperclassmen lost to graduation, proved to be extremely effective.
On the offensive side, Cal quickly took the role of aggressor, and the team displayed an improvement with possession, cleaning up some of the sloppy passes and poor execution that were bothersome during the regular season.
In the final 20 minutes of the first half, Cal stepped up its attacking play, scoring four tries to get to 20-0 at the half.
“When we’re at our best, we’re hard to defend ourselves, and it took us a while to get on the scoreboard but I thought that we did pretty well,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “We left a couple tries unscored, which was unfortunate, but I thought that did pretty well on attack.”
Freshmen prop Damon Wiley and scrumhalf Keanu Andrade both scored, along with seniors prop Kevin Sullivan and center Patrick Barrientes.
Barrientes, who has been an instrumental piece in the roster for years, was in his first game back from injury. For him and the other seniors on the team, Saturday’s game was their final on Witter Field.
The fifth-year was joined by his superstar backline teammates, fifth-years Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber, who were both exceptional against Penn State.
Webb, as usual, directed offensive play, frustrating the opposition’s defense with his clear passing vision and well-placed drop-kicks to gain territorial advantage.
Perhaps the player with the most influence on the game was Salaber. At center, he was active all game, using his various penetrating runs to create gaping holes in the defense, which other attackers used to easily get forward for scoring opportunities.
Cal only allowed two tries, both of which came in the second half. The Bears have had some issues holding onto leads this season, but crucial to the team staying on top was its ability to answer right back after the Penn State tries.
After a Penn State try in the 53rd minute, Cal was quick to return the favor, as junior wing Jake Goena broke free after a brilliant pass from Salaber. In the 65th minute, Wiley scored his second try of the day, two minutes after the Nittany Lions scored for the final time.
Although Cal made things tough on itself by allowing the two tries in final 30 minutes, it was an overall solid defensive effort, and the team will look to build off of this in the title game.
“We answered back, which was probably the biggest thing,” Clark said. “They scored a try and took it to 20-7, and had they scored another try without us scoring there would have been a pretty big momentum swing.”
Emotions among the team ran high after the final whistle blew, closing the door on the seniors’ final home game.
“We’re very proud of those boys. They’ve done so much for Cal rugby over the years,” Clark said. “So it means a lot that they were able to leave Witter Field victorious for the final time. I thought that the underclassmen and the players returning really played hard for those seniors, which is what you want. I mean it’s something to really admire, that other players will play hard for departing seniors — it’s one of those things that’s really rich and heartwarming.”
Last season, Cal reached the national title game on a stroke of good fortune, with its semifinal opponent Central Washington missing an easy go-ahead penalty kick with time dying down. This time around, the Bears were sure to let the nation know that they deserve the opportunity to repeat. With its longtime rival BYU not participating in this year’s Varsity Cup, Cal will take on a less talented Arkansas State squad in two weeks. While Cal will make sure not to overlook its opponent, it seems that the Bears have as good a shot as ever of hoisting the trophy.
Nikhil Bhumralkar covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].