Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The excitement is building on the University of St. Thomas campus this week as the Tommies prepare for their first football game.
Students moved in over the weekend, and it should make for a festive atmosphere Saturday when No. 2-ranked St. Thomas hosts UW-Eau Claire Saturday afternoon. They may not say it right away, but the three-time defending MIAC champion Tommies have their sights set on something bigger: A national championship.
That’s at least what you have to infer from what coach Glenn Caruso has been saying since St. Thomas lost to Mount Union in the 2012 national championship. Rather than address specific team goals for the 2013 season, Caruso has been clear all along with a larger goal: “Get better every day,” he said. “Based on what we’ve done you can take it for whatever you want, but we just want to get better.”
How does a team that went 10- for the third straight season and finished 14-1 last fall get better? Go 15-0 and beat the perennial Division III powerhouse for the national title.
For the immediate future, Caruso would take a 1-0 start by late Saturday afternoon with a win over UW-Eau Claire. The Blugolds seem to always be a competitive team in the WIAC. If last year was any indication, it won’t be an easy afternoon for St. Thomas.
The Tommies trailed 24-13 with less than four minutes left in regulation before rallying for 14-unanswered points and a 27-24 victory in Eau Claire last fall. Matt O’Connell accounted for both touchdowns, throwing one to Dan Ferrazzo and scoring the game-winner on his own with 2:54 left in regulation from 32 yards out.
St. Thomas has 15 of its 22 starts back from the 2012 team that won the MIAC and finished 14-1. The good news there is that a majority of the Tommies’ offensive weapons from last year are back. O’Connell returns for his junior season at quarterback after throwing for more than 2,700 yards, 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Brenton Braddock led St. Thomas in rushing as a sophomore, and he’s back after rushing for more than 1,100 yards before an injury knocked him out. O’Connell is also the Tommies’ second leading rusher.
Two of the top wide receiver options are back in Dan Ferrazzo and Dan Noehring. Look for Kyle Whitley, Matt Misiewicz and Pete Fitzsimmons to fill a few of the other receiving voids.
The St. Thomas defense also has a talented group back, led by linebacker Tremayne Williams and defensive lineman Riley Dombek. Williams led the Tommies in tackles last season and had four sacks with two interceptions.
The Tommies have to replace five starters who graduated on defense, but bring back enough depth and experience that the potential is there to remain one of the top run defenses in the nation.
Eau Claire will present quite the challenge for St. Thomas as it was their closest game of the season, other than the national title game loss to Mount Union. The Blugolds return two of their top offensive players from a squad that finished 4-6 last season and 4-4 in the WIAC.
Quarterback Austin Neu, who is also a threat to run, threw for more than 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns. Joel Sweeney returns to lead the rushing attack after running for more than 1,200 yards and 13 scores.
Sean Graham, the defense’s leading tackler last year with 63, is back at linebacker. He also had one sack and three fumble recoveries. Tyler Janus is back in the secondary after recording 61 tackles, intercepting three passes and having eight pass break-ups.
The Blugolds’ defense allowed 24 points per game and almost 400 yards on average, so the Tommies have an opportunity to put up some numbers. Kickoff will be at about 1:10 p.m. Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM as Dave Lee will call the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will have the color commentary from the game.