Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – St. Thomas hosts arguably the biggest small-college athletic event of the year Saturday as it opens the MIAC football slate against rival St. John’s at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
When the two teams met in St. Paul two years ago, St. Thomas broke a 29-year record with more than 10,000 people in attendance as the Tommies rolled to a 63-7 victory. For St. Thomas alums, having a win that lopsided, which included a 49-0 lead at the half, made up for years of painful losses and the inability to compete in the conference.
It’ll be a match-up of unbeaten teams, and both squads faced the same opponents to get there. St. Thomas, ranked No. 2 nationally, rolled over UW-Eau Claire 52-7 two weeks ago. The Tommies then had a slightly more difficult time in a 25-7 win at UW-River Falls last week. St. John’s, meanwhile, needed 10 points in the final minute of its opener at River Falls to win 17-14. Last weekend, the Johnnies scored the first 17 points against UW-Eau Claire, then had to hold the Blugolds off for a 17-14 victory.
The Tommies will be going for a bit of history against St. John’s on Saturday in what’s predicted to be a perfect afternoon for football. St. Thomas will be going for its 37th straight regular season victory, 28th straight MIAC victory and fourth straight win over the Johnnies. St. Thomas hasn’t beaten St. John’s four straight times since the mid-1950s.
MIAC football players tend to know each other from their high school days, but there’s something a little extra in the St. Thomas/St. John’s rivalry. The Johnnies lead the all-time series 49-31-1, but the recent resurgence of the St. Thomas program has added fuel to an intense, but respectful rivalry. It’s the 82nd meeting between the two schools, but it’ll be the first for St. John’s without John Gagliardi on the sidelines. He retired last season, and Gary Fasching was named his replacement.
If you’re headed to the game, you’re encouraged to get there early. Nobody will be turned away, but tickets will go on sale at 10:30 a.m. and the gates open at 11 a.m. for the 1:10 p.m. kickoff. You can bet it will be an incredible atmosphere for small-college football.
In last year’s win at Collegeville, which is undoubtedly the best atmosphere in Division III football, St. Thomas led 15-14 at the half before pulling away to a 43-21 victory. The Tommies got three touchdown runs from Ryan Toney and two touchdown passes from Matt O’Connell.
The tide in this rivalry swung away from St. John’s four years ago, and it started with one play. At the time, senior running back Ben Wartman appeared to dive into the end zone for the would-be game-winning touchdown to beat the Johnnies, but the officials ruled him down before the goal line. The St. Thomas coaching staff was notified a few days after the game the officials had gotten it wrong and that the Tommies should’ve gotten that touchdown.
The next year, in what was one of the best games in the history of Division III football, St. John’s missed an extra point in overtime. It allowed St. Thomas to claim the upset in Collegeville. That was on the way to one of what is now three MIAC titles.
Since then, the Tommies have also reached a national semifinal and national title game.
It could be an intriguing week of practice up at St. John’s. Starting quarterback Nick Martin missed last week’s game against UW-Eau Claire with an injury, and in his absence Connor Bruns passed for 236 yards and two scores. Jake Essler and Sam Sura lead the Johnnies in rushing, although St. John’s also doesn’t hesitate to run with its quarterback.
Josh Bungham is clearly the Johnnies’ go-to receiver. He has 15 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown in two games. The next receiver has four catches.
Defensively, St. John’s is allowing 14 points per game and more than 220 yards per game on the ground. That presents St. Thomas quarterback Matt O’Connell and running backs Jack Kaiser and Nick Waldvogel with an opportunity to have a big day in the running game. St. John’s also allows about 151 passing yards per game, an area where St. Thomas has plenty of weapons.
The challenge for St. Thomas will be two-fold: Stopping the St. John’s run game and getting pressure on the quarterback. The Johnnies are averaging more than 140 yards per game on the ground, and it will be up to the Tommies to let somebody other than Bungham beat them through the air.
Saturday’s winner gives that team the inside track to a MIAC title and a trip to the NCAA Playoffs. The loser has to hope the leaders falter down the stretch and win the rest of their games to have a chance at a postseason. The two teams will be bitter enemies for 60 minutes between the lines, but you’ll see them shaking hands, smiling and even taking a few pictures with each other when it’s over. That’s part of what makes this rivalry so special.
If you can’t make it to St. Paul for the game, tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at about 1 p.m. as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary.