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.
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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.”