Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It wasn’t necessarily the way Glenn Caruso drew it up on paper, but the St. Thomas football team advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals after beating Elmhurst 24-17 last Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
The Tommies got an 87-yard touchdown on a passing play for their first score of the game, cutting an early deficit to 14-7. Then they got a defensive touchdown for what turned out to be a game-winning score. With Elmhurst driving at the St. Thomas 14-yard line, Ayo Idowu recovered a fumble and ran it back 86 yards to give the Tommies a 21-17 lead.
St. Thomas hung on from there for the victory. It wasn’t their cleanest or prettiest game by any stretch, but the Tommies are one of eight teams still alive in the playoffs. That’s the bottom line.
“There’s a lot of ways we can win games and the fun one is getting the early lead. But this type of win shows a little more heart,” said Tommies coach Glenn Caruso. “It’s pretty impressive that we could do it that way.”
Caruso said a win like that comes down to preparation. He doesn’t harp on his team getting out to a great start, but rather playing a consistent four quarters.
What’s easy to forget at this time in the playoffs is a pretty simple concept: Your opponent is also a very good football team. That’s exactly the case this Saturday as the Tommies, ranked No. 3 nationally, host No. 7-ranked Hobart at noon Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
Caruso is familiar with Hobart: He played against them in his college days when he played football for Ithaca College in New York. The Statesmen are undefeated at 12-0 and have playoff wins over Washington and Lee and Wittenberg to advance to the quarterfinals.
This is the Tommies’ fourth straight trip to the NCAA quarterfinals, coming off a national semifinal loss to the eventual national champion UW-Whitewater last season.
The Statesmen are nothing short of impressive statistically. They’re out-scoring opponents by a 38-14 average and rack up more than 420 yards of offense per game on average. They have a strong running game, averaging 245 yards per game on the ground and have 45 rushing touchdowns. Couple that with a 179-yard passing mark per game to go with 18 touchdowns, and it’s clear Hobart wants to run the ball. The Statesmen ran for 286 yards and all five of their touchdowns in their 35-10 win over Wittenberg last week.
That should be yet another good test for the Tommies, who feature one of the best run defenses in the nation. The Statesmen are led in the ground game by Steven Webb and Bobby Dougherty. Quarterback Nick Strang has about 1,900 yards passing in 12 games and 16 touchdowns.
“They’ve been to the playoffs before but this is their first real playoff run so I’m sure they are very excited about their program,” Caruso said. “They are traditional on offense with a two-back approach and they’re ridiculously athletic. There’s a good reason why they’re 12-0 and the No. 7 team in the country.”
It sounds a lot like two teams who want to take the same approach when it comes to winning games. Both teams want to run the ball and stop the run. The Tommies have a more consistent passing game and appear to have a few more weapons.
Caruso said the Tommies definitely weren’t satisfied with their play last week despite winning. They’re getting back to their fundamental approach this week.
“Last week was probably the least indicative of who we are as a team. It just wasn’t us,” Caruso said. “We’ve got to get back to the way we play. It’s not going to take a heroic effort, we just have to get back to how we want to play football.”
Spoken like a true coach who is confident about his team’s chances, but not overly-confident. After all, everybody is good this time of year and everybody is playing with confidence.
St. Thomas is 32-2 at home in Caruso’s four-plus seasons so far, including a streak of 15 straight wins. The Tommies are also 50-4 in their last 54 game, including a 37-2 mark since 2010. Matt O’Connell is also 11-0 for his career as a starting quarterback for the Tommies.
Saturday’s winner advances to the national semifinals on Dec. 8 and would face the Linfield/UW-Oshkosh winner. On the other side of the quarterfinal bracket, Mary Hardin-Baylor faces Wesley and Widener takes on the prohibitive favorite, Mount Union.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at noon Saturday as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will have the color commentary.