Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When you play sports, you dream of that big match-up. It’s the one big game on your schedule that you know you have to win if you have chance at a championship.
For the St. Thomas football team, that used to be getting by St. John’s. Now, it’s all about the Bethel Royals. The Tommies and Royals kick off at 1:10 p.m. Saturday in Arden Hills and neither coach will admit it, but this match-up is ultimately to decide the MIAC champion.
St. Thomas (7-0) is ranked No. 3 in Division III and coming off a dominating 49-0 homecoming win over Hamline. In that game, the Tommies’ defense allowed 28 yards of total offense and 53 total plays. That has to be some sort of school or conference record.
Bethel (5-1) is ranked No. 10 in Division III and would be 6-0 if not for an improbably homecoming loss to St. Olaf three weeks ago. These two teams have also had great battles of late. St. Thomas survived homecoming last year in a 10-6 win over the Royals. Bethel got its revenge in the NCAA Quarterfinals in a 12-7 win that was the Tommies’ only loss last year.
Coach Glenn Caruso said his team has moved on from that game last year when asked if this Saturday’s game carries any extra motivation coming from that loss.
“I wouldn’t say it’s extra motivation, but our kids always look forward to playing Bethel. It’s their favorite game of the year,” Caruso said. “For weeks we had to say one week at a time, and now it’s here.”
It’s also because St. Thomas knows it will be a battle. In five victories, the Royals have scored less than 40 points just once and their average margin of victory is more than 30 points.
The advantage: The Tommies know what they are facing when they head to Bethel on Saturday. The challenge will be figuring out how to stop it. The Royals are almost purely a running team based out of the single wing offense. They average more than 286 rushing yards a game and have scored 23 rushing touchdowns this season.
Brandon Marquardt, a former star running back out of Champlin Park, paces that attack with nearly 98 yards a game on the ground and five touchdowns. Not to be forgotten is quarterback Josh Aakre, who averages 77 yards a game and has seven touchdowns. Jesse Phenow also averages about 76 yards a game, but leads the team with eight touchdowns.
“Make no mistake, they’re going to run the ball and we know that,” Caruso said. “They do a good job of distributing the ball, they have three guys that get like 70 yards per game out of their offense. Their quarterback is really another running back.”
Aakre can also pass when need be. He has 790 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games.
Bethel’s defense also presents a challenge for the Tommies, who are one of the most explosive offenses both in the MIAC and the country. The Royals average allowing less than 100 rushing yards a game and have only allowed five rushing touchdowns. They’re also tough against the pass, allowing an average of 149 yards a game and just five touchdowns.
It means the St. Thomas playmakers in Dakota Tracy, Colin Tobin, Fritz Waldvogel and others, will have to make plays for the Tommies to win.
“They stop the run and make a concerted effort to do so. We’ll have to find ways to be productive. They have phenomenal athletes who just don’t get out of position,” Caruso said.
The St. Thomas defense is not to be overlooked in this match-up either. The Tommies average allowing just 44 rushing yards per game and 190 yards through the air. They key stat: They’re allowing a little more than 11 points per game on average and are coming off consecutive shutouts.
It should be a great battle in Arden Hills on Saturday. Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at 1 p.m. for the live broadcast if you can’t make it to the game as Dave Lee and Eric Nelson will have the call. You can also head to wcco.com for a live audio web stream of the action.