Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There were a lot of smiles on the sidelines and even a little emotion after the St. Thomas football team beat Concordia (Moorhead) 21-7 Saturday afternoon.
The Tommies, with the win and Bethel’s 24-17 loss at St. Olaf, won their third straight MIAC title. With it comes the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Playoffs, where they’ll play for the third straight season and are coming off an appearance in the national semifinals.
Even with an automatic playoff bid secured, the Tommies still have a big game against St. Olaf this weekend to close out the regular season. Home field advantage and region rankings are still at stake. The No. 4-ranked Tommies can secure home field throughout the playoffs with a win over the Oles. It would also mark the third straight undefeated regular season for coach Glenn Caruso.
Sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell returned to action on Saturday after missing nearly two weeks with an injury. He passed for 217 yards and two touchdowns, both to Logan Marks, and ran for another 80 yards. Brenton Braddock ran for 75 yards and a touchdown as St. Thomas built a 21-0 lead that lasted into the fourth quarter.
Both of O’Connell’s touchdowns went to Marks on what looked to be the same play, where O’Connell drifted to one side of the field, then threw back across the field to an open Marks for a pair of easy scores.
The St. Thomas defense came up with another big day against a formidable offensive attack. The Cobbers managed 154 yards rushing, but averaged less than four yards per carry. Mike Valesano and Ayo Idowu led the charge with 10 tackles each, and Idowu had three tackles for a loss, including a sack. St. Thomas also had a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception.
Before the game, the Tommies were ranked third in the West Region behind Linfield at UW-Oshkosh. Both teams are undefeated, and Oshkosh clinched a WIAC title with a win over UW-Steven’s Point on Saturday.
What’s interesting is that Linfield is ahead of St. Thomas in the national rankings at No. 3, while UW-Oshkosh is at No. 5. Traditional power Mount Union is No. 1 and Mary Hardin-Baylor is No. 2 as both teams are 9-0.
St. Thomas has done its job and earned the right to play at home throughout the playoffs, assuming the Tommies beat St. Olaf on Saturday. Bethel and Concordia both need wins this week to stay alive in the at-large bid conversation. The Cobbers travel to Gustavus Saturday, while the Royals host St. John’s.
The Tommies Blog will preview the match-up against St. Olaf later this week.