LAFAYETTE, Colo. – San Diego State outscored Utah, 41-31, during a shootout in San Diego to advance to the Quarterfinals of the D1A Rugby Playoffs. The Aztecs’ six tries were one more than Utah was able to put across, in what was a valiant effort by the visiting side.
After San Diego State took an initial 7-0 lead, Utah rallied for two tries of its own for a 12-7 advantage 20 minutes into the game. The Utes, however, would control the lead for just three minutes the entire match. Jacob Zinda’s fourth try in his last three games put the Aztecs back in front following Harrison Barkham’s conversion.
Prop Gil Covey soon broke free, putting the home team back on the front foot. The ensuing pressure was to be too much and a penalty try was awarded, while Utah’s Dylan Coggins was ushered to the sin bin for ten minutes.
Proving resilient throughout the match, Utah answered while short-handed through prop Tevita Malafu to make it a two-point ballgame.
“There were certainly some opportunities that we weren’t able to convert to pull away,” assessed San Diego State Head Coach Alex Lichtig. “I think that’s credit to Utah and their ability to stay in the fight.”
The ensuing kickoff would be knocked-on by the Utes and the Aztecs didn’t relinquish possession until lock Ryan Walls took a quick-tap and went barreling over the line. Barkham’s fourth successful conversion closed the first half scoring and sent San Diego State into the break leading, 28-19.
Despite a yellow card being shown to Aztec full back Ari Fink soon after the second half kickoff, the home team controlled the tempo early in the period until a loose pass was scooped up by Utah and immediately rushed into San Diego State’s end. All-America eight man Gabe Ruflin, who led the initial charge towards the Aztecs’ line, was eventually awarded a try.
Following 50 minutes of entertaining rugby, in which both teams demonstrated plenty of skills, uncertainty crept into the continuity of both sides for a number of phases. Flink, fresh from a 10-minute break in the bin, needed one step to slice through a half-gap and bring the contest back to a sprint. An offload later and San Diego State would extend its lead to 33-24.
Less than two minutes later, it was the magician in the No. 15 jumper who broke beyond the Utah defense again. This time Flink dropped the ball off to Barkham for the inside center’s first try.
The forwards for the Aztecs showed handiness with ball in-hand, but it was their backs that exhibited a nonstop willingness to confidently shift the ball from sideline-to-sideline with nearly every possession.
“I think our system allows for our players to probe the defense and find the soft spots,” Lichtig said. “Today, our guys quickly noticed there was some space out wide and looked to exploit it consistently. We always like to play what’s in front of us, and today that meant keeping ball in-hand and having a go.”
Utah stubbornly brought itself within a converted try with ten minutes left to play. In an individual piece of brilliance, lock Brent Beales collected a spilt ball by San Diego State, and had plenty of work left to do while lumbering nearly 50 meters for a try.
The Aztecs’ defense would hold, though, and Barkham added a penalty in the 78th minute that would finally close the door on the Utes, 41-31.
Notwithstanding the loss, the five-try effort was one of many positive signs during a resurgent spring season for a Utah program suiting up its youngest team in several years.
The victors, meanwhile, will play a well known foe in No. 1-ranked Saint Mary’s Saturday, April 22 in the Quarterfinals. The Aztecs last faced the Gaels in March when they fell to its top-ranked California Conference rival, 57-5, at Saint Mary’s Stadium – the same location of next weekend’s Quarterfinal.
The 2017 D1A Rugby Playoffs will peak May 6 at Saint Mary’s College where the top two teams in the country will play for a National Championship in front of a live television broadcast on CBS Sports Network. The D1A Rugby National Championship is scheduled to kickoff 7 p.m. ET.