Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas football team got its first real test against an opponent last Saturday in its home opener, and by all accounts the Tommies passed with flying colors.
The Tommies, ranked No. 2 in the national polls, scored the first 15 points against UW-Eau Claire and led 32-7 at the half on the way to a 52-7 victory. St. Thomas out-rushed the Blugolds 280-90 and collected 371 yards of offense in the win.
Quarterback Matt O’Connell accounted for three touchdowns in the win, throwing for 134 yards and two scores. He also led the Tommies with 108 rushing yards and a touchdown. It was the type of dominating performance St. Thomas was happy to start with, especially after the Tommies had to come back to beat the Blugolds last year.
St. Thomas (1-0) had to turn around for a much shorter week than normal as the Tommies head to UW-River Falls for a non-conference road test Thursday night. After Saturday’s win, Glenn Caruso’s main concern appeared to be taking a game plan that’s normally put together in about a week and doing it in essentially four days.
UW-River Falls faces a similar task after hosting St. John’s in a non-conference game last Friday. The Falcons had St. John’s on the ropes, up 14-7 late in regulation before the Johnnies tied it with less than a minute left. The Johnnies forced a River Falls punt and ended up kicking a 40-yard game-winning field goal with two seconds left to escape with a 17-14 victory.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Tommies progress this week after their win on Saturday. They hosted UW-River Falls last year and cruised to a 43-9 victory. This year, the St. Thomas defense will have to be disciplined and contain Falcons quarterback Ryan Kusilek. He passed for 238 yards and two scores, and also ran for 110 yards against the Johnnies. He can throw, and he’s elusive on the run if you don’t corral him immediately.
Kusilek’s favorite target against St. John’s was Charles Dixon. He’s a big receiver who had seven catches for 130 yards and both touchdowns last week. In the ground game, the next best rusher for River Falls was Emanuel Udeh, who had seven carries for 25 yards. River Falls appears to go as their quarterback goes, so the key for the Tommies defensively will be keeping Kusilek in check.
River Falls had two defensive standouts against St. John’s last week. Defensive back Nick Zimmerman finished with nine tackles, and defensive lineman Alex Hohenstein had five tackles, one sack and forced a fumble.
The Falcons had a rough season in 2012, finishing 2-8 overall and 2-5 in WIAC play.
St. Thomas had five rushing touchdowns and two scores through the air in its opening win. Four rushers, O’Connell included, had at least six carries in the game. Four players had at least two catches in the passing game, led by Pete Fitzsimmons. He had four catches for 61 yards.
St. Thomas had its top defensive players step up in it season-opening win. Harry Pitera had five tackles and a half sack, while Tremayne Williams had five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble to lead St. Thomas. Tim McLanahan had four tackles, including two for a loss.
The Tommies appear to be about balance and depth this year after surviving an injury-plagued 2012 on the way to playing for a national title. The bottom line is if O’Connell plays well, St. Thomas has a great chance to win.
St. Thomas is 3-0 against UW-River Falls under Caruso as head coach. In addition to last year’s 43-9 win, they beat the Falcons 45-22 in 2011 and 27-3 in 2010.