There is one MIAC trip every year that’s different than all the others, and it’s largely due to distance that forces a change in planning.
It’s heading to Moorhead to face the Concordia Cobbers. Many coaches dread it, but not St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. It’s where he and his now wife met. Compared to other coaching gigs, the trip to Moorhead is nothing for Caruso and the Tommies.
“I’ve been at schools where our shortest trip is six hours,” Caruso said.
The trip to Concordia-Moorhead from St. Paul is a little more than half that, and Caruso said they’ll depart on Friday to ensure his players miss a minimal portion of class time while preparing for the Cobbers (3-1, 2-0).
St. Thomas is 5-0 on the season and 3-0 in MIAC play. Two weeks ago, they had a 27-7 lead on rival St. John’s and held on for a 33-21 win. It was a 6-point game in the fourth quarter.
Last Saturday was far less stressful as the Tommies rolled over Augsburg, earning a 55-7 win to celebrate Homecoming. St. Thomas scored the first 27 points and was never really threatened in the contest. The Tommies stayed at No. 4 in the latest Division III football rankings.
“They had some really high-end talent that scares you a bit,” Caruso said of Augsburg. “We talked all week about focusing on what we can control and it keeps us balanced.”
And control the game they did. The St. Thomas defense has emerged as one of the best in the nation through five games this year. The Tommies had eight tackles for a loss against the Auggies, putting the total at 55 for the season. That’s third overall in the NCAA across all divisions.
St. Thomas also held Augsburg to just four first downs, 84 yards of total offense and -2 rushing yards. That’s right, negative rushing yards. That figure includes three sacks. Augsburg was also 0-for-13 on third-down conversions.
“There’s a couple stats that are hard to replicate no matter how hard you work,” Caruso said. “Them going 0-for-13 on third down, that’s something that’s as tough as it gets. When you shut down the run and get them behind, it’s big for our defense.”
While the Tommies got three sacks, they also got to quarterback Ray Guyton for hurries or hits 17 times.
The Tommies had 541 yards of total offense in the game and ran 88 offensive plays to Augsburg’s 46. St. Thomas ran for 202 yards, with Tucker Trettel rushing for 90 yards and a touchdown. Josh Parks added 10 carries for 44 yards and a score. They’re combining to fill the void left by injured Jordan Roberts.
Quarterback Alex Fenske was 13-of-27 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Jacques Perra was 6-of-9 for 88 yards and two scores. Nick Waldvogel had seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, while Vinny Pallini had four catches for 55 yards and two scores.
Despite rushing for more than 200 yards, Caruso said there is still work for the Tommies to do in the run game.
“I won’t say we haven’t missed a beat. We’ve been productive, but not dominant,” Caruso said. “We’re getting some guys back on offensive line this week who have been out for a month, so that will be a big help to us.”
The biggest challenge for St. Thomas this week will be answering the test of the Concordia run game. The Cobbers ran for 400 yards last week in a 46-21 win over Gustavus. They also beat Bethel earlier this year, 21-13. Concordia runs for 276 yards per game, an attack that’s led by Chad Johnson’s 72.5 yards per contest and six touchdowns.
Quarterback Michael Herzog is their second-leading rusher at 67 yards per game and three scores. Herzog has thrown for about 66 yards per game. The Tommies will have to be disciplined on defense as they’ll see plenty of wing and option formations.
“They’re a really, really tough team. They’re getting back to their roots a little bit. It’s maybe a more spread, open offense but they’re loyal to wing-based attack,” Caruso said. “Johnson has the athleticism and the ability, but it’s really their system. It’s option-based and it puts defenses in a lot of compromising scenarios.”
St. Thomas has a one-game lead over Concordia and controls its own destiny to win the MIAC title and secure another NCAA bid. After the Cobbers, the Tommies host Hamline and travel to Bethel to close out October. They’ll be heavily favored in their final two games, at Gustavus and the home finale against St. Olaf. It’s shaping up to be another potentially special season for St. Thomas.
The numbers don’t lie. St. Thomas has scored at least 30 points in 34 straight games. They have 15 straight MIAC wins, 18 straight regular season wins and 14 straight home wins.
“It’s not just winning, it’s playing well. You gain a belief that if you do your job and trust those you love around you, it can culminate in something pretty special,” Caruso said.
St. Thomas and Concordia kickoff at 1:10 p.m. Saturday in Moorhead. Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.