Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There’s a renewed sense of urgency around the St. Thomas football program as it heads into its MIAC game against Carleton on Saturday.
After falling to St. John’s 20-18 in the conference opener, every week the rest of the season will essentially be a playoff game for the Tommies. St. Thomas (2-1, 0-1) can’t afford to have another MIAC loss if it has any hopes of another league title and a trip to the NCAA Playoffs.
But the team has gotten over the loss to the Johnnies and moved on, because there’s no other option. St. Thomas looks for its first conference win on Saturday against Carleton, a team the Tommies have beaten 20 straight years. The Knights feature a second-year coach in Bob Pagel, who was previously a coordinator under Kurt Ramler, now an assistant up at St. John’s. Carleton finished last season 3-7, but were competitive in most games.
The Knights are coming off a 58-14 loss to Bethel, a team favored to finish near the top of the league and ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
Carleton is averaging about 21 points per game so far this year and already have a MIAC victory over Hamline. The Knights’ rushing attack, which is averaging 113 yards per game this season, is led by Jon Baker’s 65.7 yards per game. But Carleton’s offensive staple for many years has been the spread formation and passing the ball down the field.
Quarterback Conor Lynch is averaging more than 180 passing yards per game and has four touchdowns on the season. He also has one rushing touchdown. His favorite receiver is Anthony Kemper, arguably one of the best athletes on the team. Kemper has 17 catches on the season, is averaging almost 15 yards per catch and has three touchdowns.
If the Tommies can get their offensive attack back in rhythm, there will be plenty of opportunities among all their weapons to move the ball down the field and put up points. The Knights allowed 359 rushing yards in their loss to Bethel and 334 yards passing in a season-opening loss to Grinnell College. I would be looking for a good balance of offense for St. Thomas in this match-up. So far, the Tommies are averaging more than 197 yards rushing and about 232 passing yards per game.
Put those numbers together and St. Thomas is averaging about 430 yards of offense and 32 points per game. UST’s defense has 12 sacks, one interception and also forced three fumbles so far this season.
So how have they lost a game this season already? With the great equalizer in football: Turnovers. The Tommies have had seven turnovers in their past two games, including five in the loss to St. John’s. They came in the form of two Matt O’Connell interceptions and three lost fumbles.
Glenn Caruso knows that if his team plays a much cleaner, more polished game, the rest will take care of itself. The Tommies last two games haven’t exactly been the prettiest, so he’s looking for more crisp execution, fewer turnovers and the sense of confidence that got the program to where it is now.
As poorly as the Tommies have played their last two games, one was an 18-point road win against River Falls and other was a made field goal away from a win over St. John’s. St. Thomas has proven with Caruso at the helm that it can overcome mistakes and still have a chance to win at the end.
The St. Thomas defense, which ranks in the top-20 nationally both in scoring defense and total yardage allowed, will have to be on its toes at all times against the Knights. Carleton has always had a deep playbook, and especially out of the spread formation, the Knights aren’t afraid to go into that playbook and pull out several trick plays. They make me think of a scaled down version of Boise State when they are at their best.
The Tommies will have success on defense if they can stop the run game early and get to Lynch early. If St. Thomas takes care of its side of things, the Tommies should win handily.
In other MIAC action Saturday, Augsburg travels to Bethel in a match-up of MIAC unbeaten. The other game to keep an eye on is St. John’s traveling to Northfield to take on St. Olaf. If the Johnnies lose there, they can pretty much forget about contending for the MIAC crown. Arguably the biggest game of the year will be Oct. 12 when Concordia hosts Bethel, with that winner having the inside edge at the MIAC crown. Another game to keep an eye on for the league in general comes at the end of the regular season as St. Johns will host Bethel.
After Carleton, the Tommies travel to Gustavus, then would have a huge game at Bethel on Oct. 19. They also have arguably their biggest home game of the season left against Concordia (Moorhead) and Nov. 9.
For now, Caruso just wants to have an efficient came against the Knights with few mistakes and eliminate the turnovers. If that happens, the Tommies should like the result by the end of the afternoon.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at about 1 p.m. Saturday as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary.