MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas football team is practicing this week as if it’s not the last game it will play this season. If you ask coach Glenn Caruso, he’s confident the Tommies name will be called by the NCAA selection committee for a playoff berth on Sunday.
Before any of that can happen, St. Thomas (7-2, 5-2) needs to win at St. Olaf (1-8, 0-7) Saturday and get a little bit of help. The Tommies also need Bethel, which is already the MIAC champion, to win at St. John’s Saturday. That would put St. Thomas at second in the MIAC with Concordia, which hosts Gustavus. Bethel will do everything it can to beat St. John’s as the Royals are still playing for home field advantage throughout the postseason.
St. Thomas is confident about its chances going on the road to Northfield to face a St. Olaf squad that has one win on the season and is 0-7 in MIAC play.
“We feel good about the way our team has played the last couple weeks. We’re certainly playing out best football now,” Caruso said. “If we can take care of our business, hopefully things will fall in line.”
The field for the NCAA Division III Playoffs will be announced Sunday, and Caruso said he plans to have a team meeting as usual that day and watch the selection show. That’s assuming Bethel beats the Johnnies. If St. John’s wins its home finale, it may mean the end of the season for the Tommies.
After 21 seniors played their final home game in a 34-20 win over Concordia last week, that same group plays their final regular season game this week hoping it’s not the last time they will suit up. It’s a group that has won three MIAC titles, appeared in four NCAA playoffs and put together a 46-5 record under Caruso.
In the win over the Cobbers, Jack Kaiser ran for 134 yards and three touchdowns. The St. Thomas defense shut out a dynamic Concordia offense in the second half to keep its playoff hopes alive. The win also improved Caruso’s record to 6-0 on Senior Day.
“It was awesome. It was the type of game that really displayed the mental toughness of the kids with going down 13-0 early,” Caruso said. “Our defense was awesome in the second half and our offense scored at the most crucial of times.”
Focus has been pivotal for St. Thomas at practice this week as the Tommies will be heavily favored to beat St. Olaf. The Oles have a first-year coach in Craig Stern and are coming off a 47-0 loss at Bethel last week. The Oles’ only victory of the year was in the non-conference against Northwestern.
The Oles have a pair of running backs to keep an eye on as Connor McCormick averages about 50 yards per game and J.J. Strand is a short-yardage specialist with five touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Nate Penz is throwing for about 238 yards per game and has 14 touchdowns on the season. He has also thrown 14 interceptions.
His top target is Jake Schmiesing, arguably the team’s top athlete. He has eight touchdowns on the season.
St. Thomas should have the advantage in the match-up with its offense as St. Olaf’s defense is allowing nearly 450 yards of offense per game. The Oles are also being outscored on average 34-20 on the season. Caruso and the No. 16-ranked Tommies aren’t focusing much on St. Olaf this week, but rather are working on their own adjustments.
“It’s important for us to focus on the fact that it’s not about Olaf, it’s about us being the best team we can,” Caruso said. “When we play well we have success on the scoreboard. Don’t talk much about winning and losing, talk about playing well.”
St. Thomas has had success on offense this year when it maintains balance. The Tommies are averaging more than 209 yards rushing per game and about 225 passing yards. Kaiser has emerged as the team’s top rusher since Matt O’Connell went down with an injury. Kaiser is averaging about 72 yards per game and has 10 touchdowns in eight games. In six games, Alex Fenske is throwing for 188 yards per game and has seven touchdowns.
The biggest problem the Tommies have had on offense this year is turnovers. They have 27 on the year, including 16 lost fumbles. That’s an average of three turnovers per game.
Kickoff is set for 1:10 p.m. in Northfield Saturday. 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 have the color commentary.