PROVO — Being a freshman, BYU's Jonny Linehan hadn't been around for past colossal rubgy matches against archrival Cal. He had never played for a Varsity Cup national championship.
But the young halfback from Auckland, New Zealand, who has been playing rugby since he could walk, was unfazed Saturday afternoon at South Field. He performed like a seasoned veteran in helping lead the Cougars to a dramatic 27-24 victory in the national championship match over the previously unbeaten Bears.
It marked BYU's second-consecutive national title and its third since 2009.
Linehan, who earned MVP honors, scored 22 of BYU's 27 points — including an improvisational, game-winning drop kick as time expired to break a 24-24 tie and furnish a classic finish.
The Cougars advanced the ball deep into Cal territory in the final minute, looking to end the deadlock and the match. While the game clock ran out, Linehan knew there was still a handful of seconds left in stoppage time for some magic.
"I asked the ref with about 10 minutes to go, 'Is the game clock spot on?'," said Linehan, who enrolled at BYU in January. "He said it was about one minute off. So I knew we had a bit of time after it expired."
BYU senior captain Ryan Roundy came close to scoring a try in the frenetic final moments, but was unable to cross the goal line.
"I really wanted Roundy to push it over for that try," Linehan said. "He almost got it there. But he set us up perfect. I thought that time must be close to being up. And if it's not, this is the time to strike."
After a scrum, Linehan found himself alone with the ball, and he caught the Bears by surprise — booting a three-point drop kick that sailed through the uprights.
"It was a bit of improvising. We were in front of the post," said Linehan. "I thought, '100 percent of the time in practice I put this through. But maybe when it comes down to the big moment, I'll shank it.' But I was fortunate enough to put it through the post. I wouldn't like to do it again."
"Jonny's kicking was on today," said BYU flanker Kyle Sumsion. "I don't think anybody expected him to drop kick. (Cal) was back 10 yards when he kicked that through. He's an awesome player and we're glad to have him this year."
Cal never saw Linehan's kick coming.
"There's not much you can do about it," Bears coach Jack Clark said of Linehan's game-winner. "He's sitting back in the pocket and he was a long way away from anyone being able to challenge that. ... It was a very precarious situation there. Had he missed the drop goal, maybe we had an overtime in us. But he's a good kicker."
With the win, BYU avenged a setback to Cal in the 2011 national championship match. The two teams are the powerhouses of collegiate rugby, and have built up quite a rivalry over the years.
Going into the match, Cougar coach David Smyth knew this contest was going to be a hard-fought battle.
"I woke up this morning at 3 o'clock. I had a feeling then that it was going to turn out like this," he said. "I knew whoever won, it would be by the slimmest of margins. I'm obviously very happy it was us."
Following Linehan's heroics, the freshman was mobbed on the field by his teammates, and then the fans joined in the celebration.
"After the kick, I celebrated but I was making sure the ref called time so we could really celebrate. We did this as a team and we celebrated as a team," Linehan said. "As soon as the ref blew the final whistle, my life was in danger. They came running at me. It was surreal, a wonderful experience. It was quite scary. I was scared for my life. Everyone was jumping on me. I was like, 'I can't breathe.' But it was so loud they couldn't hear me."
Linehan was happy for the opportunity to redeem himself. After senior TJ Allred scored a try to put BYU up, 24-17, Linehan missed the conversion attempt that would have given the Cougars a fairly comfortable cushion with about nine minutes remaining.
"I initially thought, 'If I put this over, it might be lights out for Cal because they can't come back from nine points in such a short time,'" Linehan explained. "I guess thinking about that kind of threw me off my kick."
Other than that errant kick, Linehan enjoyed a stellar day. He scored BYU's first try, staking the Cougars to an early 7-0 lead.
"I don't score many tries, so it was pretty special," Linehan said.
BYU never trailed, and it led 16-3 before Cal began to rally. The Bears wound up tying the game with 4:30 remaining.
"We were confident that we could get back into the game," said Bears captain Seamus Kelly. "There was no panic in us. We know we're capable of putting up a bunch of points in a short amount of time. But it wasn't enough."
On more than one occasion, the Cougar defense stopped Cal close to the goal line.
"We left a couple of points unscored throughout the game," said Clark, the Bears coach. "In a close game like that, you've got to stay out of the shadow of your own goal post, and we weren't able to do it."
"It was our defense that won the game," Linehan said.
As expected, it was a physical contest, with both teams delivering hard hits. "We knew we had to smack them back," said BYU senior Ray Forrester.
In the waning moments, Forrester had flashbacks of his team's setback to Cal in the 2011 title game.
"We knew Cal had a good scrum. A couple of years ago when we lost to them, it was a very similar situation," he said. "It was the last plays; they had a scrum; and they won the game. It was the same situation this time and that was running through my head. I thought, 'That's not happening again.'"
"These are the games you train for," Roundy said. "These are the games you live for. Today our defense came through for us."
For the Cougars, because the opponent was Cal, this victory was much sweeter than last year's win over Arkansas State.
"Yeah, because it's Cal," Forrester said. "It's one of the happiest moments of my rugby-playing life."
The Bears entered Saturday's match with a perfect 21-0 record. BYU improved to 12-2 on the season.
"To play Cal is such an honor. It's always a battle to the very end," said Smyth. "It doesn't get any better. We always hope to play Cal. For the last few years, it's been them and us back and forth. They're a fantastic program. For me as a coach, I wouldn't dream of it any other way."
For BYU's Luke Mocke, it was twice as dreamy. Not long after the match ended, Mocke proposed to his girlfriend on the field.
"I won twice today," Mocke said, grinning.
While a freshman played a huge role in Saturday's victory, the Cougars were inspired by their band of seniors.
"We talked about playing for our seniors today," Sumsion said. "They gave it all they had for five years. We wanted them to go out on top. We're very proud of our seniors."
One of those seniors, Roundy, summed up his feelings.
"There's no better way to go out. You couldn't ask for a better scenario for my last game of my college career," he said. "To be able to beat Cal in my last game, and for it to come down to the last drop kick, it was picture-perfect. It was awesome. You couldn't ask for a better finish."