MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The No. 8-ranked St. Thomas football team didn’t have much to celebrate on Saturday until the last six minutes of its season-opening game at UW-Eau Claire.
Trailing 24-13 late in the fourth quarter of a game filled with penalties and mistakes, the Tommies scored 14 points in the last six minutes to steal a 27-24 victory from the Blugolds. It’s the type of result that illustrates perfectly the change in mentality that has gone on at St. Thomas since Glenn Caruso took over as head coach. This was the type of game they couldn’t win in the past, not with 13 penalties and a couple chances in the red zone spoiled by turnovers.
But now, St. Thomas has won 26 straight regular season games and has a new leader in sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell.
O’Connell threw a short slant pass to Dan Ferrazzo with six minutes left that turned into a 49-yard touchdown. After a successful two-point conversion pass to Logan Marks from O’Connell, the Tommies trailed 24-21.
It didn’t take long to get the ball back. On UW-Eau Claire’s next offensive play, Tyler Erstad intercepted a pass to give the Tommies the ball back at their own 45-yard line.
Three plays later, O’Connell took off on a designed run play around the right side to give the Tommies a 27-24 lead with less than three minutes left. He finished 19-of-37 passing for 266 yards and two scores. Dan Noehring led a balanced receiving attack with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Ferrazzo finished with three catches for 66 yards and a score. Seven different receivers had a catch in the game.
Defensive back Sean Hamlin sealed the victory for the Tommies with a late interception to kill the Blugolds’ final potential scoring drive.
St. Thomas collected 428 yards of offense despite committing 13 penalties and losing two fumbles. Aaron Terrell-Byrd led St. Thomas with 73 yards rushing on 14 carries.
The Tommies defense allowed just 87 net rushing yards on 35 carries, a 2.5 yard-per-carry average. Mike Valesano led the defensive charge with 11 tackles, including one for a loss and a fumble recovery.
St. Thomas looked dead in the water trailing by 11 with six minutes to play. They needed a big play, and they got several of them on both sides of the ball. That’s Caruso telling his athletes to forget about the miscues and live in the moment. That’s the players having confidence and buying into what Caruso is teaching them. That’s the changing of the guard after two straight undefeated regular seasons and MIAC titles.
While I’m sure Caruso is pleased his team made the big plays when it mattered to win the game, I’m sure he would’ve liked to have it a little easier in the fourth quarter. But it’s the first game, and it’s all about adjustments from here.
St. Thomas (1-0) hosts UW-River Falls at 1 p.m. Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul. The Falcons are coming off opening 31-22 loss to Simpson College of Iowa. The Tommies beat UW-River Falls 45-22 last season.