MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The winning tradition has been established, now it’s up to a newer crop of talent to keep it going.

That’s the challenge that lies ahead for the St. Thomas football team. The Tommies travel to UW-Eau Claire on Saturday for a 3:10 p.m. non-conference match-up. Entering the season, St. Thomas has all the right things going for it.

The Tommies are coming off their second straight undefeated regular season. They’ve won two straight MIAC titles and are a unanimous pick by their peers to win three in a row. They haven’t lost a regular season game since 2009, a stretch that goes back 25 games.

But none of that guarantees anything as St. Thomas travels to take on the Blugolds, who finished 5-5 last season but have a slew of talent back. Coach Glenn Caruso said this week the Tommies will have to be ready to play to start the season 1-0.

“I think we’ve got a good football team that we’re playing and we’ve upgraded our non-conference schedule. They’ve handled St. John’s the last two years and they’ve played extremely well. It’s a benchmark for us,” Caruso said.

Caruso spent 2003 as an offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for the Blugolds, who averaged 33 points per game and 417 yards of offense per game that season.

St. Thomas has 17 players back who either started or gained playing experience last season. Of those, eight received first or second team All-MIAC selections. Their strength early will be their defense, which was ranked second in the nation last year against the run and in the top 10 in scoring defense.

Almost their entire starting secondary is back from last year in Chinni Oji, Jack Gavin and Tyler Erstad. Ryan Dietz would’ve been a full-time starter last year, but was injured, and is back now. Harry Pitera, a preseason All-America selection at linebacker, is also back.

The offense is the question mark as Matt O’Connell will take over at quarterback for the graduated Dakota Tracy. Star wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel and running back Colin Tobin are also gone. Caruso said one person can’t replace a player like Waldvogel, but he hopes to fill the void with Dan Noehring, Dan Ferrazzo and newcomer Hootie Hubbell. Ryan Toney and Aaron Terrell-Byrd are also back at running back.

In looking at UW-Eau Claire’s two-deep chart, their offense is young with one starting senior on the offensive line and senior Austin Neu at quarterback. He threw for nearly 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, and he was also their third-leading rusher.

The defensive line features three starting seniors, they have a senior linebacker and two seniors in the secondary. Sean Graham, the team’s leading tackler, is back for his junior season at linebacker.

The Blugolds appear to have a good mix of youth and experience, and last year allowed about 162 passing yards per game and more than 320 yards in total offense. The opportunity for the Tommies is in the run game, where they allowed 165 yards per game and 14 touchdowns.

It should be a great early test for the Tommies, who are ranked in the top 10 in four preseason Division III polls.

“I had the fortune of working there so I know they do a fantastic job,” Caruso said. “Being on the road you have to make sure you prepare for everything. We’re going to be have to be ready to play.”

Coming off two straight unbeaten regular seasons, it’s hard not to be confident about the fall season ahead. That’s the expectation now at St. Thomas: Play with confidence and win.

“Our guys have worked tirelessly to put themselves in a good situation. The carry over with our success is now in the fact that we had a good spring camp. We’ve had a good fall camp and now we need to be ready to go,” Caruso said.

The Tommies and Blugolds kick off at about 3:10 p.m. Saturday in Eau Claire. Tune into the game on WCCO Radio 830 AM as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary all season.


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