PROVO — Defending national champion BYU faced a stiff first-half challenge at South Field in Provo Saturday afternoon before rattling off 46 unanswered points to walk away with a convincing 53-20 win over Central Washington in the Varsity Cup semifinals.
"I thought Central Washington played really, really well in the first half," said Cougar head coach Dave Smyth. "They really had a good game plan and gave us everything we could handle. We made some adjustments at halftime and got out of the breaks a little quicker, were a little more careful with the ball and we didn't play with our backs to them."
Early on, the Cougars broke the ice, scoring seven minutes into the match on a diving try by Will Taylor and a Jonny Linehan conversion to take a 7-0 lead. The Wildcats answered by scoring 15 straight points to secure an eight-point lead over the Cougars as the first half began to wind down.
However, the Cougars picked up tries from junior Chris Wernli and senior Ishmael Tilialo heading into the half to take a lead they would never relinquish. Freshman Luke Mocke added two tries in the second half and had his own theory on the slow start by the Cougars.
"I think with a lot of teams, playing at this point in the season for the national championship is a big honor," Mocke said. "So the guys just come out with their hearts on their sleeve and props to Central Washington. They just played with their heart. I think that's all that they were doing and must have just got gassed at the end."
As frustration mounted for the Wildcats, play got a little chippy at times and flat-out violent at others. Andrew Nelson got away with kicking a Cougar in the head at one point and Central Washington was penalized for a punch on another occasion. Smyth's frustration was subtle but evident as he spoke in his Irish accent about the rough play.
"Our line-outs were a wee bit loose," Smyth said. "I think they (Central Washington) were doing some things in the scrum that they prepared and I don't know if it was all legal. I've gotta go and look at the film. But according to our boys they had a few things sorted out there that they were doing and the referee was letting them do it. But they were definitely a challenge in the set pieces today."
As the defending champions, the Cougars felt the advantage was theirs in a tight match, believing experience would win out.
"We addressed that specifically at halftime," Smyth said. "We had to stay calm ourselves and as soon as we got them on their back foot, we thought we'd be able to do something. We thought if we could get a couple of quick tries in the second half their heads would drop a little bit, so that was definately the plan. We just tried to get them on their back foot and get moving and moving and moving."
The seniors were honored during a postgame ceremony and Mocke shared his sentiments about his graduating teammates.
"It's just a dream come true," Mocke said. "I've always wanted to come to BYU and rugby was able to afford me that opportunity. It's just a blessing to be able to play with the guys on the team. These guys are phenomenal and being a freshman and learning from them is just a blessing."
The Cougars will take on Cal as they play in their eighth consecutive national championship game Saturday, May 4 at 1 p.m. on their home turf at South Field.