MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas football team has passed every test so far this season on the way to a 5-0 record and a top-5 Division III national ranking.
The Tommies came from behind to win their opener at UW-Eau Claire, won in dominating fashion at rival St. John’s and overcame six turnovers last week in a win over Gustavus. At the same time, St. Thomas players and coaches know they’ll need their best game of the season to get a win this Saturday.
The No. 3-ranked Tommies have their biggest test of the season yet, and it fittingly comes on Homecoming in front of what should be a sellout crowd. They host No. 9-ranked Bethel, who also comes in 5-0 and unbeaten in the MIAC. The Royals are coming off a stunning 15-14 win over Concordia (Moorhead) where they took advantage of a Cobbers penalty to score on the last play in regulation, then won the game on a successful two-point conversion.
St. Thomas and St. John’s had the best rivalry in the MIAC for a long time. Now it might be St. Thomas and Bethel.
“It doesn’t get much better than Bethel for Homecoming,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. “Bethel in some ways is a lot like us in being a new kid on the block, but they were there before us. It’s a knock-down, drag it out type of game and it’s one we definitely look forward to.”
Saturday’s winner becomes the lead horse in the race for the MIAC title, which is pivotal for postseason play. The Tommies had a 17-0 lead over Bethel on Homecoming last year and held the Royals off 23-12. Two years ago, St. Thomas beat Bethel in the regular season, then lost to the Royals in the NCAA playoffs.
The Tommies know what they have offensively between Matt O’Connell at quarterback, Dan Ferrazzo, Dan Noehring and Logan Marks receiving and Aaron Terrell-Byrd, Ryan Toney, O’Connell and even Brenton Braddock running the ball. The St. Thomas defense also looks to stop the run game and pressure the quarterback to let their experienced secondary make plays.
There was some worry that defensive lineman Ayo Idowo might miss the game. He got hurt in the second quarter of the Gustavus win and spent the rest of the day in a walking boot. Caruso said Tuesday morning he was fine and would be practicing this week.
Bethel is led offensively by quarterback Erik Johnson, who is also a threat to run. He averages about 180 yards a game through the air and has five passing touchdowns on the season. The Royals also feature a group of four athletes who run the ball, led by Marshall Klitzke. Brandon Marquartdt, Peterson and Derek Waldbillig are also options. Waldbillig and Anderson are tied for the team lead with six touchdowns each.
The Royals are no slouch defensively either. They allow an average of 11 points per game and about329 yards in total offense. Inside linebacker Seth Mathis leads the team with 56 tackles and has three interceptions.
It’s a match-up where there really are no secrets. Both teams have played each other enough to know their tendencies, and it comes down to execution. Caruso said the team that wins the battle at the line of scrimmage probably wins the game.
“It’s going to be a battle at the line of scrimmage. Both sides have talented players. It’ll be the match-ups up front that determine the outcome,” Caruso said.
It’s a huge game and is a toss-up on paper. The Tommies might have the edge playing at home as they are now 27-2 at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in the regular season under Caruso. If you’re going, get there early as plenty of events will be going on with St. Thomas having Homecoming festivities. The crowd should also rival the 16,000-plus that the Tommie/Johnnie games usually get.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM as Dave Lee and Eric Nelson will have the call from St. Paul. Kickoff is set for 1:10 p.m.