RIVER FALLS, WIS. – Gary Fasching was a guest on a Twin Cities radio show this week. The congenial host said to St. John’s head coach in football:
“The Johnnies have to get back to stealing victory rather than defeat.”
On Friday night, St. John’s opened its first football season without John Gagliardi on the sideline since 1952. The opponent was Wisconsin-River Falls, a team that has not won more than two games in a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference season since 2004.
The Johnnies were coming off a sixth-place finish in the MIAC that led to the departure of Gagliardi. The legend of Collegeville won 465 of his record 489 games at St. John’s.
If the benchmark for sainthood in the Holy Roman Church is three confirmed miracles, Gagliardi had those times about 30 in his amazing run as a coach.
Things had turned in the opposite direction over the previous two seasons. The Johnnies slipped to the second division in the MIAC in 2011, and they were 3-5 and lost to the five teams above them in 2012.
“John and I were talking in the office a couple of weeks ago, about the games that got away the last couple of years,” Fasching said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but how many did we win before that when it looked like we weren’t going to.’ ”
We do now know how many games Fasching has won as St. John’s coach when it didn’t look as if the Johnnies were going to:
St. John’s offense was almost slapstick with the mistakes it was making for most of this night. And then the Johnnies scored 10 points in the final 55 seconds for a 17-14 victory.
For this to happen, St. John’s required the following after it trailed 14-7 in the final 5 minutes:
• A bad snap for River Falls that went for a 12-yard loss and stopped a clock-killing drive that the Falcons had started at their 2 and moved to their 34.
• Quarterback Nick Martin’s 20-yard completion to Blake Belland on fourth-and-11. If there’s no hookup there, the Falcons have the ball at SJU’s 25 and victory is theirs.
• A 29-yard pass from Martin to Josh Bungum on a post route to put at River Falls 9. A touchdown followed with 55 seconds left to make it 14-13, and then …
“We were going for two,” Fasching said.
Why? “Because Jerry Haugen, our defensive coach here forever, said, ‘This is St. John’s … we go for the win,’ ” Fasching said.
Except, there was a false start, so freshman Alexi Johnson came in and kicked the tying point.
River Falls returned the kick to its 22. The Falcons were left to think overtime when Matt Workman sacked quarterback Ryan Kusilek and sent him to the sideline briefly.
River Falls punted and St. John’s went with a fair catch at 38 with 23 seconds left. Conversely, St. John’s had minimal use of the middle of the field, until Ben Krebsbach ran a drag route, and he was open for Martin’s pass and went 39 yards to River Falls’ 23.
One deep pass to Bungum went incomplete and here came Johnson, the freshman from Shakopee, to try a 40-yard field goal with 6 seconds left.
“I watched Alexi before the game and he made about two out of 10 from there,” Martin said. “I was a little worried, but I’d also seen him kick it farther than that in practice.”
Johnson knocked it through. The Johnnies had a 17-14 victory.
Martin, the sophomore from Wayzata, missed a lot of receivers that St. John’s people say he normally hits.
“With five minutes left, I was disappointed in myself,” Martin said. “But on that touchdown drive … we hit that fourth-down play to [Belland] and everything clicked.
“The post route to Josh Bungum, I missed that a couple of times, but we knew it was there.
“It would’ve been tough, to lose Gary’s first game, but we came up with St. John’s football at end.”
It might not go down as Fasching’s first miracle, but it sure as Hades was improbable.