For the second straight year, two top-10 teams meet in Collegeville on Saturday with the inside track to the MIAC title at stake.
Last year, more than 17,000 football fans made the voyage to watch St. Thomas and St. John’s face off in Collegeville. The Tommies took over in the second half for a 35-7 victory. This year, St. Thomas heads to Collegeville ranked No. 4 nationally, where they’ve been since the season started. The Tommies opened MIAC play Saturday with a 62-10 win over Carleton.
St. John’s was a fringe top-10 team before the season, but climbed to No. 6 this week after shutting out St. Olaf 44-0 in its league opener. If the weather holds, it could be another record-setting crowd in Collegeville. The Tommies are looking for their third straight victory over St. John’s. St. Thomas also beat the Johnnies 38-19 last year in a second round NCAA Playoff game.
“St. John’s is the biggest game we have this week. It’s not just a rivalry game, it’s a couple top-10 teams that are pretty good. We love going up there to play,” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. “There was definitely a buzz among the guys at practice (Tuesday). It’s always fantastic wherever you play. We could play it in a cornfield in Iowa and it would be great. But it’s a place we feel very comfortable.”
The Tommies did exactly what was expected of them against Carleton on Saturday. They dominated early and had a 41-3 lead at the half. St. Thomas did it without running back Jordan Roberts, who was given rest. He is expected to play Saturday and the Tommies will need him against the Johnnies. He exploded in the second half of the regular season meeting with the Johnnies last year with three touchdowns in a 35-7 victory.
“The expectation is that he’ll play. We’re just making sure that we’re smart about resting him when we have the opportunity,” Caruso said.
Alex Fenske and Jacques Perra virtually split quarterback duties in the win over Carleton. Fenske was 6-of-9 passing for 132 yards and two touchdowns, both to Joe Reed, on plays of 47 and 62 yards. Perra was 6-of-7 passing for 135 yards, including a 61-yard score to Tanner Vik.
Maybe the most impressive offensive display was from back-up running back Josh Parks. The transfer from Minnesota had nine carries for 143 yards and two touchdowns. His scores came on runs of 57 and 70 yards.
“We got everything we were hoping to get out of it. We got a four-score lead and were able to sit most of our starters after about a quarter-and-a-half,” Caruso said. “We played a lot of guys and that’s pretty cool. What’s really cool is the guys ahead of them understanding their responsibility and doing their job so that those guys can get reps.”
The St. Thomas defense limited Carleton to 161 yards of total offense and just 10 first downs. Adam Kraft and Steve Harrell led the Tommies with six tackles each. St. Thomas also had 11 tackles for a loss in the win.
That defense will have its hands full this week as they’ll face by far the best and deepest offensive attack yet this season. St. John’s is 3-0 and is outscoring opponents so far 44-8 on average.
They’re led by quarterback Jackson Erdmann, a former prep standout and Rosemount who played football at Penn State before transferring back to St. John’s. He’s throwing for about 209 yards per game and has 12 touchdowns. Six of those are to Evan Clark, who averages about 73 yards per game receiving. Dan Harrington and Matt Miller each have two receiving touchdowns.
St. John’s has a balanced run game after Sam Sura was the featured back for the last four years. The Johnnies rush for about 237 yards per game, but no running back averages more than 37 yards per contest. It’s a group that includes Adam Essler, Antoine Taylor and Kai Barber.
“He’s (Erdmann) an overall good quarterback. He knows when it’s time to get rid of it and he knows when to hang in there,” Caruso said. “They rotate a lot of guys in and their backs are versatile. It might be tough for their backs to get in a rhythm but it’s also tough for our defense to get comfortable.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for St. Thomas between Fenske and Perra, they’ll need to keep the ball away from Leonard Gutierrez. He leads the St. John’s defense with four interceptions.
Through three games, the Johnnies are allowing about 179 yards in total offense per game and about 44 on the ground. Parker Anderson leads St. John’s with 23 tackles on the season, while David Franta, Carter Hanson and Bryan Bowar all have 12 tackles each.
It’s a big game for St. Thomas, with three of its next four after coming against Augsburg, at Concordia-Moorhead and at Bethel. St. John’s travels to Bethel and Augsburg in the two weeks after. The winner of Saturday’s game will be the favorite to win the MIAC, and if both teams win out they may both make the NCAA Playoffs regardless of who the league champion is.
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 provided color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.