ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — St. Thomas of Minnesota quickly made sure it would be playing for the national championship.
Matt O’Connell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another on Saturday and the Tommies beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh 28-14 in the Division III national semifinals.
Brenton Braddock added 117 rushing yards for the fourth-ranked Tommies (14-0), who will be making their first appearance in the championship game. They will play top-ranked Mount Union (14-0) on Friday in Salem, Va.
It will be the eighth straight title game — and 12th in 13 years — for the Purple Raiders. Mount Union beat Mary Hardin-Baylor 48-35 Saturday.
“They’re awesome,” Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said of Mount Union, which is 6-5 in championship games since 2000.
Caruso had a premonition his team’s final score would be 31-21.
“I went to church yesterday morning and sat in the front row like I routinely do, talked about how thankful we are,” he said. “I look down and there’s a little card — no idea why it was there, nobody knew I’d be there — and the card was Proverbs 21:31, which is ‘The horse is prepared this day for battle, but victory is in the hands of the Lord.’ I just felt very strongly that we had prepared our guys to the best of their ability and in some ways it might have been a little bit out of our hands today.” He also got a text from a fellow coach Friday night that contained the same scripture.
Even though he was off a bit on his final score, Caruso would be thrilled to have a similar fast start in the championship game.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Tommies defensive lineman Ayo Idowu picked up a fumble after a fumbled Titans pitch and rumbled 25 yards for a 7-0 lead.
“I was just thinking, ‘Don’t be slow,'” said Idowu, who scored on an 86-yard fumble return two weeks ago against Elmhurst (Ill.).
Later in the first quarter after a blocked punt, the Tommies scored on a 6-yard pass from O’Connell to Logan Marks and a 1-yard keeper by O’Connell for a 21-0 lead.
Still, the Titans felt comfortable. After all, they’d come back from at least a 10-0 deficit in each of their first three playoff games.
“We dug ourselves too deep of a hole and it showed at the end,” said linebacker Taylor Goodman.
“If we would have gotten within seven, it would have been a lot of fun,” Wisconsin-Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said.
Playing with a broken pinky on his throwing hand, Nate Wara was 20 of 34 for 266 yards and had a rushing and passing score for the fifth-ranked Titans (13-1), who turned the ball over four times — three fumbles and an interception. Wisconsin-Oshkosh was plus-18 in turnovers entering the game.
“No excuses,” Wara said.
The St. Thomas defense had a lot to do with the Titans’ offensive struggles. Wisconsin-Oshkosh entered the game averaging 256.7 yards on the ground, but were held to just 25. Other than a 77-yard touchdown reception by Cory Wipperfurth in the second quarter, the Titans were held to under 200 passing yards.
“We knew they had a very dynamic offense,” said St. Thomas linebacker Mike Valesano. “We knew our best asset was going to be our team defense: everyone do their assignment, don’t try to be Hercules out there, do your job and fill your gap.”
On offense, the Tommies were able to effectively run the ball — finishing with 191 yards — and eat up large chunks of time.
“The key was to chip away at them all game. We tired them out,” said Braddock. “We wanted to show how dominant we could be running the ball.”
An 8-yard touchdown run by O’Connell made it 28-7 midway through the third quarter, but Wara finished a 13-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak late in the quarter.
The Titans got the ball at their own 40 early in the fourth quarter, but fumbled it away on the first play. They later had two three-and-out series before the Tommies ran out the final 5 minutes.
“We just wanted to finish strong,” Tommies linebacker Tremayne Williams said.
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