Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It wasn’t quite how they thought they might get back there, but the St. Thomas football team is back in the NCAA Division III Semifinals for the second straight year.
The Tommies (13-0) are ranked No. 3 nationally and are one win away from playing for a national title. St. Thomas got to the national semifinals last year for the first time, losing to eventual national champion UW-Whitewater 20-0. The team that stands in their way: The 13-0 UW-Oshkosh Titans.
UW-Oshkosh is also 13-0 after coming back from being down 21-6 at the half at Linfield to claim a 31-24 overtime victory. The Titans are ranked No. 5 nationally and won the WIAC.
St. Thomas will have plenty of confidence going into Saturday’s game, which is at 2 p.m. at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The Tommies demolished No. 7-ranked Hobart 47-7 last week in the quarterfinals. But this year things are a little different, and destiny seems to be on the side of St. Thomas.
After graduating several players at key skill positions, there were plenty of question marks heading into the season. Then, the injuries started to hit and they haven’t stopped. Just six players from the original starting 22 were at their spots against Hobart. In total, the Tommies have had 108 players who have been hurt for at least a week.
It makes their 13-0 record and MIAC title that much more impressive. For this year’s senior class, this is their last home game. If they win, the national title game is in Salem, Va., and if they lose the season is over. The Tommies have every reason to be confident heading in as they’ve been nothing short of dominant on their home field.
“It’s enormous to have home field. We’ve been blessed to have three straight home playoff games with earning the No. 1 seed in the region,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. “I’m sure it will be packed and the students and the fans will be out, but just the familiarity with everything being four games deep in a five-game playoff. You have the chance of being at home and not having the nervous energy of being on the road. It doesn’t mean everything, but boy we’re sure happy we’ll be in front of that purple.”
St. Thomas and Oshkosh have two familiar opponents on the season, UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls. The Tommies beat Eau Clare 27-24 in the opener and then River Falls 43-9 in their home opener. Oshkosh beat Eau Claire 50-13 and River Falls 19-7.
The Titans will be quite the challenge for the St. Thomas defense, which is one of the best around. Oshkosh averages 39 points per game and about 429 yards in total offense. It’s also fairly balanced with 236 passing yards per game. The Titans have also scored 37 rushing touchdowns compared to 29 passing touchdowns.
Quarterback Nate Wara has all those passing scores to go along with more than 3,000 yards passing on the season. Wara also has nine rushing TDs on the season. Caleb Voss is his favorite target with more than 1,200 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns.
Cole Myhra leads the team in rushing with about 120 yards per game and 16 touchdowns. It will be a huge test for St. Thomas, which allows less than 100 rushing yards per game.
They’re gaudy offensive numbers overall, and Caruso said they run a traditional offense with a two-back set. Oshkosh wants to establish the run and open things up from there.
“They’re a fantastic team and their table is set. They’re very senior laden and they have a senior quarterback,” Caruso said. “They can certainly air it out but they also have a staunch running attack. They’re a very traditional team and I really appreciate the way they play, they run the ball and throw it when it’s there.”
On defense, UW-Oshkosh allows just 14.9 points per game and about 293 total yards. The Titans will get their biggest test Saturday as the Tommies loaded offense is averaging 37 points per game and 473 total yards. St. Thomas runs for about 245 yards per game.
On paper, it looks like a great match-up between two great teams with a berth in the national title game at stake. Let’s hope it ends up that way, as the winner heads to Virginia next Saturday.
Tune into WCCO Radio at 2 p.m. Saturday as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide the color commentary.