Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – If the St. Thomas football team has any hopes of playing in the NCAA Division III Playoffs, it knows winning out is pretty much the only option.
That got a lot more difficult this week despite a 20-12 win at Gustavus last Saturday. That’s because a new quarterback will be behind center when the No. 9-ranked Tommies (4-1, 2-1) travel to No. 5-ranked Bethel (5-0, 3-0) Saturday in arguably the biggest game of the year in the MIAC. Bethel is unbeaten in conference play so far and coming off a 45-22 win at Concordia (Moorhead).
A St. Thomas win Saturday likely creates a three-way tie for first in the conference. St. Thomas and Bethel would each be 3-1, and St. John’s will be heavily favored to beat Carleton. Saturday is without a doubt the biggest game of the year for the Tommies and it’s pretty rare for two top 10 teams to meet during the regular season.
Injuries are nothing new for the Tommies, but it’s a different story when the starting quarterback won’t play the rest of the year. The St. Thomas athletic office confirmed earlier this week that Matt O’Connell suffered a season-ending lower body injury during the second of the win at Gustavus. The specific injury hasn’t been disclosed, but O’Connell appeared to suffer a broken leg or ankle while scrambling on a passing attempt.
When he went down, players for both teams immediately signaled for trainers and knelt on the ground in prayer. Medical officials put a boot on his right leg and took him off on a stretcher. It could be a big blow to a squad which no longer has its leader in the huddle.
John Gould came in as his replacement, and Alex Fenske eventually played most of the second half. Fenkse threw a pair of touchdown passes to help lead St. Thomas to that win. I would look for Fenske to be Saturday’s starter with Gould getting snaps in running situations. Fenske is a more pure passer, and it would be his first career start.
It will also be interesting to see who the Tommies turn to in the run game. O’Connell led the team on the season in rushing. Brenton Braddock was the featured running back Saturday, but fumbled on his third carry and never got back on the field. Jack Kaiser filled in and ran for 87 yards.
Saturday’s game in Arden Hills will likely come down to St. Thomas’s stingy defense against Bethel’s dynamic offense. The Royals are averaging 488 yards of total offense per game and 42 points. The Royals are incredibly balanced with about 261 yards passing per game and 221 rushing yards. Quarterback Erik Peterson leads Bethel with more than 1,300 yards passing, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’s completed about 70 percent of his passes.
Brandon Marquardt averages about 117 yards rushing per game to lead the Royals. The Tommies have one of the top run defenses in the nation, allowing about 61 yards per game on the ground and five touchdowns. Tremayne Williams is one of the leaders of the St. Thomas defense with 22.5 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions on the season.
Bethel also features a strong defense, led by linebacker Seth Mathis’s 51 tackles. The Royals forced Concordia into seven turnovers in their victory last week. St. Thomas needs to secure the ball on offense as the Royals are allowing about 323 yards of offense and 19 points per game.
But regardless of whether Gould or Fenske gets the start at quarterback, the Tommies will be inexperienced in one of the most hostile environments in the MIAC. Bethel always has a great atmosphere that’s tough to play in.
St. Thomas beat Bethel 37-0 last year, but the Royals bounced back to reach the second round of the NCAA Playoffs before falling to UW-Oshkosh. The Tommies dropped three spots in the polls to No. 9, but they stayed in the top 10 for the 50th straight poll. St. Thomas can also carry confidence into the contest knowing they’ve won 15 straight MIAC road games.
Glenn Caruso will be looking to improve to 6-0 against the Royals in the regular season. Both he and the team know it will take an almost perfect effort in every phase to get it. Kickoff is set for 1:10 p.m. in Arden Hills.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at about 1 p.m. as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play. Eric Nelson and former St. Thomas star Fritz Waldvogel will provide color commentary.