The St. Thomas football team knows this much: It’s in the NCAA Playoffs regardless of what happens on Saturday in its regular season finale.
The Tommies had another dominant defensive effort in a 40-6 win at Gustavus on Saturday. The victory clinched at least a share of the MIAC title. With victories over Concordia-Moorhead and St. John’s serving as tiebreakers, they’re guaranteed a playoff game. The Johnnies and Cobbers meet Saturday, and St. John’s likely clinches a playoff spot with a win. Concordia needs more help, but could also get in with a victory.
But for Glenn Caruso and St. Thomas, there is a far greater focus. It’s the final regular season home game for 26 seniors, a group that played for the national title last year. The Tommies host St. Olaf, seeking their fifth 10-win regular season in the last seven years. It would also be their second straight outright MIAC title and fifth in seven years.
St. Thomas (9-0, 7-0) will be heavily favored to beat St. Olaf (2-7, 1-6), but it remains a big game for the Tommies. They can assure themselves a first-round home playoff game next week with a victory.
“It gives us a chance to honor our 26 seniors. It’s pretty amazing. They’re going for their 40th win in four seasons,” Caruso said. “But they’ve also earned 1,000 hours in community service and raised more than $100,000 for charity.”
St. Thomas, ranked No.4 in the nation, has the sixth-best defense in the country. The Tommies have allowed 12 points in their last two victories, collected eight sacks, five interceptions and forced three fumbles.
“The last two weeks we’ve defended 172 total plays and allowed 12 points. In general the way this defense has played the last two weeks has been fantastic. And we’ve played more guys than we did at this time last year, which is nice.”
The Tommies led 26-3 at the half at Gustavus and were never threatened. Josh Parks had 14 carries for 74 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter for the early lead. Tucker Trettel did not play due to resting a few lingering injuries.
Alex Fenske had another big day passing with 289 yards and four touchdowns. He found Matt Christenson on an 8-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give the Tommies a 13-0 lead. He also found Jackson Hull for scores twice in the second quarter on plays of 13 and two yards. Fenske completed passes to eight different receivers on the day.
Fenske’s 53-yard touchdown to Joe Reed gave St. Thomas a 33-3 lead in the third quarter. Fenske has quietly surpassed 4,000 passing yards for his career.
“I think we’re doing a good job distributing the ball to guys where it highlights what they can do,” Caruso said. “We have guys with different talents and Alex is finding them at the right situations.”
St. Thomas limited Gustavus to just 128 yards of total offense, including a mere 82 passing. The Gusties were also limited to 2-of-15 on third-down conversions. The Tommies got seven sacks and forced five turnovers. Two of those turnovers were interceptions, both by Michael Alada. He leads the nation with nine interceptions.
The Oles come to St. Paul Saturday in the regular season finale for both teams. When the two teams met last year, the Tommies cruised to a 54-0 victory. Craig Stern is in his fourth season as the St. Olaf head coach and has a 6-33 record.
St. Olaf’s lone MIAC win is over Gustavus. The Oles are scoring about 22 points per game and are averaging more than 340 yards of total offense per contest. About 240 yards per game comes through the air, led by quarterback Jack Goldstein. He has 11 touchdowns on the season, but has thrown eight interceptions.
The Oles spread the ball out among their receivers. They feature four receivers who all average at least 40 yards per game and have a combined 12 touchdowns on the season. It’s a group led by Connor Henderson, who averages 60 yards per game and has four touchdowns.
“They throw the ball quite a bit and do so out of sets we don’t usually see,” Caruso said. “They have empty sets, no backs, four receivers to a side. It’s really the other end of spectrum from Concordia.”
The St. Olaf defense is allowing on average 421 yards of offense per game and 33 points. That includes 230 yards per game on the ground, so there’s an opportunity there for St. Thomas to win the line of scrimmage and run the football.
Luke Dahl leads the Oles defensively with 83 tackles in nine games and 2.5 sacks.
“Their defense is a lot different now. They run a defense we don’t see a lot, only four times in 110 games here. It forces you to rethink roles and makes you work harder to do the same things,” Caruso said.
The Tommies are looking to finish an undefeated regular season for the second straight year and build momentum for the playoffs. For eight straight years, St. Thomas has had at least eight wins in the regular season. Before that, the program had just 12 seasons with at least eight wins between 1902 and 2007.
Assuming St. Thomas takes care of its business Saturday, the Tommies will likely be hosting a first-round playoff game on Nov. 19. After that, nothing is guaranteed.
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 the color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.