Patrick Reusse
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COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – The mighty Warhawks from Wisconsin-Whitewater and St. John's were scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday in the magnificent gully that houses Clemens Stadium.

Two hours earlier, there was brief conversation on how the previous St. John's coach — John Gagliardi, the Grand Odd Fellow of the Gridiron — would have handled the start to the 2022 season the Johnnies are facing:

First Whitewater, the perennial national power and dominant in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Then UW-River Falls, arisen as a WIAC contender. And then Bethel, now the biggest rival in the MIAC and loaded with experience, including tremendous Royals quarterback Jaren Roste.

St. John's Jerry Haugen, in Year 47 as a defensive assistant and with 37 of those as Gagliardi's right-hand man, smiled at the question about the fierce early schedule and said:

"Never would've happened with John. We played one tough team in many years — a good team, not a Whitewater — but never two of these.

"If John ever saw a schedule like this, he would've thought someone had gone crazy … namely, him."

Gagliardi retired in 2012 as the winningest coach in college football history (489 wins). He passed away in 2018, and the inspired Johnnies defeated archrival St. Thomas that week.

This is the second season since the Tommies left the MIAC for non-scholarship Division I football. Throw in the 2020 season canceled by COVID-19 and there had not been a Tommies game to serve as a fall highlight for St. John's followers since 2019.

Throw in the haphazard schedule of the MIAC, and the regular season needed excitement.

"Plus we needed games," St. John's coach Gary Fasching said. "I was talking with Kevin Bullis, the Whitewater coach, and he was having trouble finding games, too. So, we said, 'We might as well play each other.'

"We go there next year. Maybe we'll get a little rivalry going that's more than once in a while in the playoffs."

Fasching was saying this well before kickoff. Once that happened, the events of the next 2 ½ hours certainly will have the prideful Warhawks — six-time national champions — looking forward to future battles.

The final was St. John's 24-10. The defensive effort by the home team was phenomenal. So was the crowd of 12,462, the eighth largest all time for a Johnnies home game.

Fasching said: "What I told our team this week was, 'You can't win this game with offense. You aren't going to put up 30 points against this Whitewater defense. We have to get after them on defense."

Message received.

The first half was played with blunders befitting a season opener.

A shotgun snap over the head of Whitewater quarterback Evan Lewandowski gave St. John's an early safety. An interception thrown by quarterback Aaron Syverson prevented the Johnnies taking full advantage of that.

Syverson threw a TD pass to 6-7 tight end Alex Larson after a Whitewater fumble. A missed Warhawks field goal kept it at 9-3 Johnnies at halftime.

Whitewater came out with unused running back Tamir Thomas for the second half. He went off on a 46-yard rumble and led a touchdown drive to make it 10-9, visitors.

And then the Warhawks went nowhere after that. Michael Wozmiak, the fifth-year senior defensive tackle, turned monstrous. His partners up front joined in pursuing Lewandowski.

The final seven Whitewater possessions: 26 plays, one first down, 4 yards.

"That was it?" said Fasching, after finishing his postgame interview on the Johnnies radio network. "Four yards."

Well, coach, there were 15 yards lost when the punter dropped a snap to give your team a safety.

"That would be 19 yards in seven possessions," Fasching said. "Pretty incredible against this team."

Wozniak was in the tangle of fans, family and players that congregate on the field after games.

"We had an outstanding defense last season and we went to work for this season saying, 'We're going to be better,' " Wozniak said. "We have experience up front, with me and Metoriah Faoliu and Nick Harris, but Zach Frank and Joe Akoh really got a lot of action for the first time and they were outstanding.

"And our goal won't change: to keep getting better every week."

If that's the case, St. Scholastica could be in serious trouble at the end of October.