Stress-free victories do not appear to be in the DNA of the University of Puget Sound football team.
As long as the Loggers win, nobody is complaining.
Surviving a wild fourth quarter, UPS opened the season with a heart-thumping 31-29 victory Saturday afternoon over reigning SCIAC champion La Verne at Baker Stadium.
Austin Wagner, the Loggers’ starting running back two seasons ago before suffering a career-threatening knee injury, came off the bench to rush for a career-high 183 yards on 14 carries — the team’s most rushing yards in a single game since 2008.
Two of Wagner’s carries were long touchdown runs in the fourth quarter of 76 and 34 yards.
The last score went around the right side, giving the Loggers a 31-23 advantage with 4 minutes, 12 seconds to go.
“(La Verne) was making adjustments on our stretch-run plays, but on that second one, it was more of hitting the right cut at the right time,” said Wagner, a fifth-year senior from Davis High School in Yakima. “There was a nice little cutback lane I could take.”
The UPS defense had the Leopards on the ropes on their next drive — fourth-and-11 — near midfield. But quarterback Josh Evans went back across the field to pass to a wide-open Alex Arellano for a 53-yard touchdown connection.
The Loggers kept the lead on the game-tying two-point conversion attempt when running back Dallas Parent, who rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the final eight minutes, dropped a pass in the right flat.
Zackary Teats collected the La Verne onside kick along the right sideline with 1:14 to go, and the game appeared over.
But it wasn’t.
With the Leopards out of timeouts, UPS faced a third-and-long near midfield. Offensive coordinator Taylor Chapatte called a run play to run the game clock – but coach Jeff Thomas overruled it and instead called a pass play.
It was supposed to be a post play over the top to standout receiver Brennan Schon, but quarterback Hans Fortune instead went down the right sideline to Steve Branham against single-man coverage.
“I wanted to end the game … on that pass.” Thomas said.
It fell incomplete, and gave La Verne one more chance with 47 seconds remaining.
La Verne got as far as its own 45-yard line before the Loggers secondary swatted two Hail Mary passes away in the final seconds.
La Verne outgained the Loggers in total yardage, 487-417. But it was the Loggers’ special teams that were the difference by sniffing out La Verne on four key plays — blowing up a fake punt that led to Puget Sound’s first touchdown; scoring on a two-point conversion (Max McGuinn pass to defensive lineman Monty Newman); blocking a La Verne PAT kick; and denying the Leopards on the 2-point conversion pass.
It was the first time in Thomas’ seven seasons that the Loggers defeated a reigning conference champion.
“We graduated an amazing senior class, but we proved today that our success (in 2015) … was not a fluke,” Thomas said. “We are a legitimate program.”