When the BYU men's rugby team walked off the field after its first full match of the season at Saint Mary's on Feb. 15, the Cougars probably couldn't help but stare at the scoreboard in disbelief:
St. Mary's 30, BYU 24.
This was a BYU squad that hadn't dropped a competition to a college opponent in more than two years, and the Cougars had led 24-20 in the second half against the Gaels — but they still lost.
"It was definitely a shock to the system," Cougar head rugby coach David Smyth said. "It was a wake-up call. It showed you have to work hard if you want to succeed."
Although BYU bounced back nicely, winning each of its next eight matches (including a rematch with St. Mary's in Provo), now comes the true test of just how good the Cougars are in 2014.
It's Varsity Cup playoff time — and BYU has a title to defend.
"Other than one misstep, we've done what we had to do," Smyth said. "Have we always done it the way I wanted? No — but that's part of being a team. Overall I'm fairly happy. If we come into the playoffs mentally in the right frame of mind, we'll do some good things for sure."
The Cougars kick off their Cup competition in Saturday's quarterfinals against Dartmouth. The game will take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, at 11:30 a.m. MDT.
After defeating perennial power Cal in a thrilling battle in last year's final to win the inaugural Varsity Cup, BYU has an extra-large target on it this season.
"There is pressure, but this is a team that responds to extra pressure," Smyth said. "On big occasions this year, we've given our best effort. We know we're at the point where we win or go home. We're going to have to perform on Saturday or it will be a long flight back."
One of the question marks the Cougars had the season was who would fill some very large leadership voids after the graduation of some key players following last year's title.
Smyth said it's varied at times, which is something different this year.
"Kyle Sumsion has done fairly well," Smyth said. "He's a captain who has seen those who have gone before and what they had to do. He's done an admirable job of bringing the boys along."
But Smyth also noted that Sumsion was absent for some time because he was competing with the USA national team. Other guys who stepped forward included sophomore Jonathan Linehan, senior Will Taylor and senior Dave Collins.
Those players will be key in getting the Cougars ready for the playoffs, since they can't afford to come out with a poor effort.
Smyth said that Dartmouth brings a very intelligent team to the field which will have an excellent plan in place.
"They are well-coached and they take a very intellectual approach to the game," he said. "We've played them a couple of times and they've always represented themselves well. I expect nothing less this weekend."
Smyth said BYU will counter with a very good game plan of its own and also hopes that the Cougar physicality will play a big role.
"We hope to find some one-on-one match-ups that we can exploit and then go there," Smyth said. "We hope to use our physicality to establish a good solid platform moving forward and not get static or go backward."
He hopes BYU will execute a little better and "end up on the right side of the ledger" but said that if the Cougars want to avoid ending the season in the same shocking way they started it, it will come down to the players.
"The boys have to be responsible for their performance," he said. "As coaches, we've talked all week about how it is on their shoulders. It's on them and they have to perform on that day."
If BYU wins, the Cougars will return to host the semifinals on April 26 with the winner of that contest advancing to the Varsity Cup finals at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 3.
Saturday's match between BYU and the "Big Green" will be streamed live on the Patriot League Network. For full details, including directions, event information and streaming details, go to www.NavySports.com.