AZUSA, Calif. – If he had first-start jitters, Gary Wagner must have left them back in Helena, Mont., 4 days ago.
In his first collegiate start, Wagner, a junior quarterback, looked more like a wily veteran who has always had his hand on the steering wheel of a defending champion team and the nation’s longest winning streak. He completed 17-of-25 passes for 237 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for another score to lead top-ranked Carroll College to a 41-22 nonconference victory over No. 23 Azusa Pacific University Saturday evening before a record crowd of 5,003 at Cougar Stadium.
Wagner calmly handled Azusa Pacific’s constant rush on him, wisely choosing when to leave the pocket, when to throw in the flat and when to go deep. He consistently averted near-sacks and instead finished with 73 rushing yards on 12 carries. He threw touchdown strikes of 65, 31, and 19 yards to Travis Browne.
Under Wagner’s direction, Carroll accumulated 440 yards of total offense and converted 9-of-15 third downs, including 3 straight in a first-half closing drive in which the Saints motored 66 yards on 12 plays, capped by Wagner’s 9-yard scramble into the end zone with 11 seconds left to give the Saints a 21-7 halftime lead.
Wagner serviced notice early that he would not need any time to adjust to his new role on the team. On the Saints’ second play from scrimmage, he rolled to his right and hit a streaking Browne down the sideline for a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown that gave Carroll a 7-0 lead less then 3 minutes into the game. Then on the second play of the second quarter, Wagner found Browne again for 19-yard touchdown score to push the Carroll advantage to 14-0.
He opened the second half by directing a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive that not only pushed the Carroll advantage to 28-7 but also chewed up more than half of the third quarter, nearly 8 minutes of play. Combined with their final drive of the first half, Carroll tallied 146 yards on 26 plays, scoring twice and using 12 minutes and 32 seconds of the clock on back-to-back drives.
When Azusa Pacific did have the ball, the Cougars found success with running back Chris Brown, who scored 2 touchdowns on runs of 43 and 4 yards, the second one pulling the Cougars to within 2 scores at 28-14 early in the fourth quarter. However Carroll quickly struck back, needing just 9 plays to cover 106 yards and less than 5 minutes to tack on 2 more touchdowns, one of which was a 31-yard bullet from Wagner to Browne.
Led by All-American Owen Koeppen’s 9 tackles, which included a sack, Carroll’s defense held Azusa Pacific to just 60 rushing yards. Overall, the Saints limited Azusa Pacific to just 10 first downs and 222 yards of total offense, 89 of which came on 2 plays, Brown’s touchdown run and a 46-yard pass from Rodney Trimm to Michael Van Gorden.
Aaron Strazicich, the first Cougar freshman QB in 14 years to start a season-opener, performed well, completing 12-of-18 passes for 110 yards before coming out of the game late in the third quarter. Trimm completed just 2 passes, but one was a 6-yard TD score to All-American Jon Davis, giving Davis a school-record 26 TD catches in his career. Davis finished with a game-high 8 catches for 97 yards.
The victory pushes Carroll’s nation-leading winning streak to 16 straight and puts the Saints at 1-0 for the 2008 campaign. Azusa Pacific, which falls to 0-1, returns to the gridiron next Saturday (Sept. 6) at the University of San Diego for a 6 p.m. contest.