Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Two things became pretty clear after St. Thomas beat UW-Oshkosh 28-14 in the NCAA semifinals on Saturday: Nobody puts more pressure on coach Glenn Caruso than himself, and big plays with a team defensive effort have the Tommies playing for their first national title.
St. Thomas (14-0), ranked No. 4 for most of the season, will face Mount Union for the national title at 6 p.m. Friday in Salem, Va. For those who can’t travel to watch the contest in person, it will be on national television on ESPNU. Mount Union (14-0) is ranked No. 1 in the country and has been in the national championship game the last three years, where it has lost three straight.
Caruso, in his fifth season as St. Thomas coach, was pretty emotional after Saturday’s win and understandably so. The Tommies got to the national semifinals last year but were shut out by eventual national champion UW-Whitewater 20-0. He traveled to watch the championship game, but none of his players were there. That clearly ate at him on the inside as he called himself a failure as a coach for not getting the Tommies there last year.
He’s being pretty hard on himself with that statement. The reality is he got to 50 career wins at St. Thomas faster than anyone else in school history and has taken the team to four straight NCAA Playoffs appearances. He’s also now the career coaching leader at St. Thomas, and his fifth season as coach will come to an end Friday night with either a championship or a runner-up finish. In his four-plus seasons, Caruso has a 57-7 record.
The Tommies had tears of joy as the final buzzer sounded Saturday. St. Thomas scored 21 first-quarter points and had a 21-7 lead at the half. Five UW-Oshkosh turnovers made the difference in the game.
On the Titans’ first play from scrimmage, they botched a pitch on an option and Ayo Idowu scooped it up and ran 25 yards for a touchdown 14 seconds in. About four minutes later after an Oshkosh punt, Matt O’Connell found Logan Marks for a 6-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.
O’Connell scored on a 1-yard run late in the opening quarter to give the Tommies a 21-0 lead. O’Connell finished the day 14-of-23 for 156 yards passing and one score. He also ran 24 times for 59 yards and two scores. Brenton Braddock led St. Thomas on the ground with 117 yards.
The only score of the first half for UW-Oshkosh came early in the second quarter as Nate Wara hit Cory Wipperfurth for a 77-yard touchdown pass.
But the St. Thomas defense largely held stiff, intercepting Wara twice on the day and recovering three fumbles. It also limited the Titans to just 25 yards rushing and less than 300 yards of total offense. UW-Oshkosh came in averaging 39 points per game, and the Titans only saw the end zone twice.
The Tommies also sacked Wara four times and had nine tackles for a loss on the day.
St. Thomas now gears up to face Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. In its semifinal, Mount Union needed a furious rally to beat Mary Hardin-Baylor in the other semifinal. Mount Union scored 34 fourth quarter points to claim a 48-35 victory.
Mount Union will be in its 16th NCAA title game and third straight. They’re a program that’s won 10 national titles under coach Larry Kehres, who has a 341-24-3 mark there in 27 seasons.
The WCCO Tommies Blog will have a full preview of the game later this week. If you didn’t get a chance to watch the Tommies’ win over UW-Oshkosh, ESPNU will replay that contest at noon Friday leading up to the national championship game.