Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There’s rarely been a time in the St. Thomas/St. John’s football rivalry where it’s considered an upset if the Johnnies come out with the victory.
That was exactly the scenario Saturday as the two teams entered their MIAC opener 2-0, with the Tommies ranked No. 2 in the nation after making a run to last year’s national title game. After five turnovers, including two Matt O’Connell interceptions and a couple other throws that could have been picked off, St. Thomas still had a chance to escape Saturday with a win.
Trailing 20-18 in the final seconds in front of a crowd of nearly 11,000 fans, St. Thomas kicker Paul Graupner faced a 32-yard field goal that would’ve won the game. All the St. John’s faithful needed to storm the field was two words: Wide left. Graupner missed, and St. John’s came away with the improbable road victory in a packed house.
The loss snapped a number of streaks for the Tommies, including three straight wins over the Johnnies. St. Thomas also entered the contest with 36 straight regular season wins, 27 straight MIAC wins and 18 straight home wins. St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso reflected on the day when it was over and almost had a surprised tone when his kicker went out with a chance to win the game.
“Today’s loss, as difficult as it was, was a matter of all three phases not doing their job,” Caruso said. “To be frank with you, it’s amazing we had a shot at the end considering how poorly we played.”
In the aftermath, St. Thomas dropped just four spots in the national polls to No. 6. If they can win the rest of their regular season games, which will be no easy task, they can still tie for a MIAC title if Bethel can beat St. John’s. That’s assuming St. Thomas, St. John’s and Bethel all finish the regular season with only one loss.
With the win, the Johnnies got into the national polls for the first time this season at No. 21. All that matters for the St. John’s program is that first-year head coach Gary Fasching is 1-0 against his team’s biggest rival.
O’Connell had arguably one of his worst games as St. Thomas quarterback and still threw for 245 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 60 yards and a score.
The Tommies will get to stew over what went wrong in this game for a while as they’re on a bye week before hosting Carleton on Oct. 5.
Saturday’s atmosphere more than met expectations as the attendance was announced at about 10,800. That’s an O’Shaughnessy Stadium record and the most so far this year for any game in Division III. But what matters to Caruso and his team was the score when it was over. St. Thomas had lost a regular season game for the first time in more than three years.
The glass half full approach is that St. Thomas played poorly most of the afternoon and still had a chance to win. O’Connell also was reportedly fighting illness and not 100 percent. The realist says you can’t turn the ball over five times and expect you can still win the game. The loss comes despite the Tommies out-gaining St. John’s 380-278.
The good news is that St. Thomas has winnable games at home against Carleton, which is Homecoming, and at Gustavus before a huge showdown at Bethel on Oct. 19. That game will have implications for the MIAC title. St. John’s, meanwhile, has a three-game stretch where they host Concordia (Moorhead), travel to St. Olaf and host Augsburg. The Concordia game is Homecoming for the Johnnies, but not one of those three games is a guaranteed MIAC win.
And if the Johnnies pass all those tests, they face Bethel in Collegeville on Nov. 16 for what would likely be the MIAC title game.
Back in St. Paul, the Tommies likely need to win out to have a chance at the Division III Playoffs. It would be a huge disappointment to not reach the postseason after getting to the national title game in 2012. But if you were to ask Caruso right now, his sole focus is beating Carleton on Oct. 5.