Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Focus isn’t going to be an issue this week for the St. Thomas football team, at least if you ask coach Glenn Caruso.
It’s too big of a week for the Tommies program to go into a game without the necessary focus to come away with a win Saturday afternoon. What makes this week any different from other games? Well, the St. Thomas players and coaches won’t admit to it, but any time you face your bitter rival it’s always a little more intense.
For the 4-0 Tommies, who are ranked No. 3 in Division III, not much is going to change in game preparation this week. And not much should, because whatever they’ve done the last four weeks has worked. St. Thomas hosts St. John’s Saturday afternoon in St. Paul. It’s a match-up that will likely bring more than 10,000 people to O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
“Last year at homecoming we had 8-10,000. You get those kinds of crowds because it’s a game that means so much to so many people,” Caruso said. “There’s a genuine excitement any time you play a rival, but this team has gotten where they have because they haven’t altered their preparation.”
Last year, nearly 17,000 fans watched the Tommies beat the Johnnies for the first time since 1997 after a missed extra point in overtime. As ironic as it sounds, the Tommie/Johnny rivalry is as bitter as it is friendly. Many of the players are good friends away from the field, but they’re bitter enemies between the lines.
When I was in college at St. Thomas, I equated it to the little brother (St. Thomas) always getting beaten up by the bigger brother (St. John’s). But every once in a while everything comes together and the little guy wins the fight. Last year was the first time in a while where St. Thomas went into the game favored even though they were the road team.
This year the Tommies are 4-0, and St. John’s has struggled to a 2-2 mark. The Johnnies needed overtime to beat Concordia (Moorhead) in their MIAC opener, and last week Augsburg drove 80 yards in 18 seconds to beat St. John’s on the final play of the game, 32-31.
With all that said, what happened in the past doesn’t really matter when it comes to the Tommies and the Johnnies. It’s a chance for old friends to reunite, and bragging rights are on the line for a year. It’s one of the great atmospheres in small-college sports.
As for Saturday’s game, if St. Thomas has any aspirations to play in the playoffs, this is a game they must win. Caruso and his team know that, but their focus is just on playing good football.
“It sounds trite, but if you look at last year’s game we won at their homecoming in a hostile environment,” Caruso said. “But we won with kind of a C- game. We had four turnovers and for us to play not nearly close to our best game and still pull that off was something.”
Caruso said if the Tommies can play as good a game as they’re capable of, the scoreboard should take care of itself.
As far as game analysis, something will have to give between the Tommies offense and the Johnnies defense. Over the course of the past 16 years, Caruso said, St. John’s averages allowing about 14.5 points per game. St. Thomas has scored at least 45 points in its last three wins.
You can talk about strategy, you can talk about game plans, you can talk about Xs and Os. Really a game like this comes down to a couple key things: The team that plays with more heart, the team that executes their overall game plan better and the team that catches more breaks. The Tommies caught one last year with a missed extra point in overtime.
St. John’s leads the all-time series 49-29-1, and Saturday will mark 110 years since the first time the two teams met.
When you play a rival anything is possible, but one thing is certain: It’ll be a great game and a special afternoon.
If you are heading to the game, you’re encouraged to get there early and park in the new ramp on the south campus lot. There will also be tailgating there starting around 10 a.m.
Can’t make it to the game? Tune in on the radio as WCCO Radio 830 AM will have a live broadcast featuring Dave Lee and Eric Nelson starting around 1 p.m. If you’re not near a radio you can listen to a live web stream of the radio broadcast on wcco.com.