For a rare, bright instance, the sun of good fortune shone on the University of Puget Sound football team Saturday.
In years past, if the Loggers had lost their starting quarterback to injury, or surrendered a few fourth-down conversions, they might have melted on the spot.
That was not the case in Saturday’s season opener. And in the end, Sawyer Petre’s 33-yard field goal with less than three minutes remaining broke open a tie game, lifting the Loggers to a 13-10 nonconference victory over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps of Claremont, California, at Baker Stadium.
The win not only broke a 13-game skid at home dating back to 2010 — coach Jeff Thomas’ first season — it gave these players something they’ve never experienced — a home victory.
And with students and alumni barreling out of the grandstands to celebrate with the team afterward, it was clear this was an emotional way to start a season — and maybe a winning streak.
“It has been a few years, but it is one of the best wins I’ve ever had,” said UPS freshman defense back Matt Gilbert, who knows a thing or two about winning after playing at powerhouse Bellevue High School.
“This is a new team. This isn’t past UPS football teams. We are much better all around the field.”
But the Loggers could be without one of their leaders for a while.
Quarterback Braden Foley, the senior from Bothell who already holds the school’s all-time passing yardage mark, left the game late in the first half with a right shoulder injury.
On his last play, he tried throwing a pass downfield that wobbled and fell into the arms of Stags defensive back Tiger Brown. Foley immediately clutched his throwing arm and ran to the sideline.
Thomas labeled the injury a sprained shoulder, and said it could keep Foley — who returned to the UPS sideline for the second half in an arm sling — out indefinitely.
In came backup Hans Fortune, a towering 6-foot-6 sophomore from Kenmore. And on his first career snap, he threw a 25-yard touchdown strike to Kevin Miller to give the Loggers a 10-7 lead with 43.4 seconds to go before halftime.
Make no mistake, much of the credit Saturday belonged to a year-older defense intent on not being pushed around — especially in the middle where it had been so vulnerable the past few seasons.
The Loggers picked off Claremont quarterback Trey Reynolds four times — twice by Gilbert. They sacked him twice. And they held the Stags to 103 rushing yards on 39 attempts.
“(New defensive coordinator) Jeff Ramsey brought in this great new defense, and we have bought into it 100 percent,” Gilbert said. “We knew that our offense would do its best to get yards and get into good field position. In the end, we told ourselves it was on us, and let’s bring this team home.”
They did plenty, giving Fortune one final opportunity to win the game.
And he made the game’s decisive play with less than five minutes to go.
On second down, he had a wide open alley to take off and run. And Claremont defenders sensed it, too, and charged up to greet him.
But Fortune stopped and turned back to his right to see receiver Brennan Schon alone in the middle of the field for a 23-yard completion, setting up Petre’s game-winning field goal with 2:58 remaining.
“(Schon) was about the third read in my progression,” Fortune said. “I was about to take off, but then it opened up right in front of me. I just thought throwing it would be a bigger play than I could get running it.”
Gilbert picked off Reynolds with 1:39 to go. The Stags got the ball back one final time and drove to the Loggers’ 33, but Matthew Aven’s 49-yard field goal into the wind with six seconds remaining came up short.
The Loggers’ last home victory came at the end of the 2010 season — a 42-31 victory over Northwest Conference foe Pacific, which had just restarted football. That win did not trigger as the same kind of celebration as the one that took place on the field Saturday.
“As much as it is about our team winning,” Thomas said, “it shows how much our community loves the game of football.”