Football is back, and times are exciting for Glenn Caruso and his St. Thomas program.
The Tommies went 14-1 last year, falling to Mount Union 49-35 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. They had an early 14-0 lead in the Division III national championship before the Purple Raiders came storming back. Despite coming up short of the title, it was an incredible year for Caruso and the Tommies.
St. Thomas won its third MIAC title in five years, and the Tommies were selected by the league’s coaches as the favorites to repeat as champions. St. Thomas is also ranked No. 4 nationally to start the season.
The Tommies get things started at UW-Eau Claire Saturday night, and they’ll do it with a new quarterback after John Gould graduated. Caruso said Tuesday that senior Alex Fenske will get the start against the Blugolds. The competition came down to Fenkse and University of Minnesota transfer Jacques Perra, a sophomore from Roseville.
Fenske saw action in 10 games last year, mostly when St. Thomas had big leads. He completed 55 of 70 passes for 882 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions. Fenske has the most experience of any returning quarterback.
“Both he (Fenske) and Perra looked phenomenal (in fall camp). They can both win for us,” Caruso said. “Perra is 25 practices into it and he’ll be great, he’s talented and has fit into our locker room.”
It should also help the Tommies that their top rusher from last year, one of the best in the nation, is back in Jordan Roberts. He ran for more than 2,000 yards and 34 touchdowns last season and is a preseason All-American. If there is a question mark for the offense, which averaged 51 points and 516 yards per game last season, it’s at wide receiver. Nick Waldvogel returns and was last year’s top receiver, but Charlie Dowdle, Jack Gilliland and Ryan Bradley all graduated.
Caruso said it will be up to players like Tanner Vik, Joe Reed and Tanner Bedard to fill the void.
Caruso is and should be just as excited about his team’s potential on defense. They have several returning starters from one of the better units in the country, and their front seven will battle with any offense in the nation. Five of their top tacklers from last year are back. That’s a group that includes preseason All-Americans in Jesse Addo and Ryan Winter. The Tommies also bring back Steve Harrell, Bennett Celichowski and Isaac Seering.
St. Thomas faced UW-Eau Claire in the season-opener last year, with the Tommies cruising to a 62-7 victory. The Blugolds went 0-10 last year and have a new coach in Dan Larson, who was hired in January. He had been the offensive coordinator at Minnesota-Duluth, one of the better Division III teams in the country.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Caruso said. “That’s a team that definitely should not be 0-10, they’ll be ready to go.”
Caruso is not paying much attention to the numbers that give the Tommies a big advantage into Saturday night. They’re facing a new program in rebuilding mode that is establishing a new identity. It’s a game that’s difficult to prepare for because they don’t know what they’ll see from Eau Claire until kickoff Saturday night.
“The unknown is what scares me about Eau Claire. That’s what keeps you up at night,” Caruso said. “New staff and a new culture, you just don’t know what you’re going to see.”
If last year’s numbers are any indication, the Tommies could have a big offensive day. The Blugolds allowed, on average, 470 yards of offense and 43 points per game. In last year’s win, St. Thomas collected 470 yards on offense and the defense forced three fumbles.
Eau Claire has some experience back in quarterback J.T. Denhartog. He threw for about 138 yards per game and had four touchdowns last year on an offense that largely struggled. He was also their second-leading rusher at about 51 yards per game. Their leading rusher from last year is not listed on the current roster.
On defense, the Blugolds bring back their top four tacklers from last year. It’s a group that’s led by Kaeleb Stangler with 57 tackles.
Caruso is doing his homework to get the Tommies ready for Saturday. As much as it’s about knowing what Eau Claire might do, it’s also about making sure St. Thomas knows its game plan and executes it properly. It’s a formula that’s worked for Caruso, who is 105-15 in nine seasons.
“In the nine years I’ve been here, it’s never been about the opponent,” Caruso said. “It’s about are we playing the best we can play, are we being the best version of ourselves? It’s about the process and not results.”
That’s largely because if they stick the process, the results should take care of themselves.
St. Thomas and UW-Eau Claire kick off at 6:10 p.m. Saturday.