The St. Thomas football team found itself down 20-16 with 29 seconds left in regulation at Concordia-Moorhead two weeks ago. But there was no panic for the No. 4-ranked Tommies.
The Cobbers scored on an improbable 77-yard hook-and-ladder play, executed to near perfection, to take a 20-16 lead with 29 seconds left. A 14-game MIAC regular season win streak, and more importantly a continued run to another league title, hung in the balance for St. Thomas. When most teams would’ve packed their bags and gone home, Glenn Caruso and the Tommies answered.
With the help of a few penalties, St. Thomas drove 56 yards in 27 seconds. Nick Waldvogel caught the game-winning touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Alex Fenske in the front corner of the end zone with two seconds left. The Tommies could breathe again, getting a 23-20 victory.
“Nick gets a lot of credit for the catch and deservedly so, but the throw Alex made was phenomenal,” Caruso said. “Where the ball was placed, only Nick was going to get it. It’s Alex’s first year as being our go-to guy, and he’s produced extremely well.”
It was a situation St. Thomas simply hasn’t experienced in a long time, trailing late in the fourth quarter of a regular season game. Their last regular season loss was in 2014 at Bethel, and the Tommies have largely dominated opponents since.
Caruso said his team wasn’t rattled one bit by the late score.
“One of the things we talk about with mental toughness is it’s not coming out of a locker room after a speech all rah-rah. It’s about how your respond when you face some adversity. When they did score, we said there is plenty of time left and we have to go out and execute,” Caruso said. “Are we going to just pack up our bags and go home? No. It was very pragmatic and we kept our composure. There was no panic.”
St. Thomas maintains a one-game lead over St. John’s and Concordia for the MIAC title. The Cobbers and Johnnies meet in Moorhead in the regular season finale for both teams. The winner of that game is likely to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs, assuming the winning team finishes the season with just one loss and St. Thomas finishes 10-0.
The Tommies, meanwhile, host Hamline this Saturday before its final three games at Bethel, at Gustavus and home against St. Olaf. St. Thomas controls its own destiny for another MIAC title after making a run last year to the Division III title game.
But for now, the focus is on the Pipers as the Tommies are coming off a bye week. Hamline started 3-0 and is now 4-2, including a 2-2 mark in MIAC play. Their victories are over Gustavus and St. Olaf. The Pipers lost to Carleton and Concordia.
St. Thomas beat Hamline 78-7 last year, but the Pipers are not a team to be taken lightly. Caruso put it pretty simply: You only get so many chances, so you had better value every one you get.
“We’re only blessed with 10 guaranteed opportunities in a given season. It’s not that tough to be focused every week,” Caruso said.
Chip Taylor is in his first season as Hamline’s head coach, and his offense is putting up numbers that will make any opposing coach uneasy. The Pipers are averaging about 28 points per game and more than 400 yards of offense.
They rush for more than 100 yards per game, but not a single running back averages more than 40 yards per game. Jamien Hampton leads the group with about 36 yards per game and two touchdowns. Quarterback Justice Springs is passing for 297 yards per game and has 16 touchdowns on the season. He also has seven interceptions.
His favorite target is Josiah Harris, who averages 67 yards per game and has eight touchdowns. The Pipers have three receivers who all average more than 60 yards per game.
“I really have tons of respect for Chip,” Caruso said. “He’s squeezing every bit of what he can out of his athletes. Every week they come up with different creative run plays and formations to do them out of. Josiah Harris is one of the best utility guys in the league.”
The Tommies will have opportunities to put points on the board. Hamline’s defense allows 140 rushing yards, 230 passing yards and about 23 points per game.
The Pipers are led defensively by Jonny Nguyen and Zach Schwalbach, who have 45 tackles each. Schwalbach also has four interceptions on the season, and Mitchell Maday leads the defense with seven sacks.
It’s a game, on paper, that St. Thomas is heavily favored to win. But that’s why they play the game, you never know what can happen.
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 have color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.