The St. Thomas football team, ranked No. 3 in the country, appears to be peaking at the right time.
The Tommies are only playing better as the opponents get stronger and the games get more meaningful. Last Saturday was the most dominant effort of the season for St. Thomas, and it got them to the NCAA Quarterfinals.
After a fairly slow start for both teams, St. Thomas dismantled No. 16-ranked Coe College in a 55-6 victory at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The Tommies led 41-0 at half, and for the second straight week in the playoffs, starters sat for the second half.
The St. Thomas defense limited running back Trevor Heitland, one of the best in the country and a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, to just 43 yards on 24 carries. That’s about 1.8 yards per carry. Even more impressive, the Tommies first-team defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since their Oct. 29 victory at Bethel. That’s more than a month, and spans four victories.
“It was the most complete half we’ve put together so far and it was versus a really good team,” coach Glenn Caruso said. “You don’t plan to be up 41-0, but the identities of our team are really starting to come out.”
That identity is having one of the best defenses in the country, currently fourth-best statistically, and having a balanced offense that’s scoring more than 48 points per game. It’s a formula that can certainly lead to a national title.
St. Thomas ran for 263 yards against the Kohawks, with Tucker Trettel and Josh Parks combining for 201 yards and three touchdowns, two of which came in the first half. Alex Fenske, recently named the MIAC Offensive MVP, finished 16-of-23 passing for 229 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. In his second straight playoff game, Fenske rested in the second half as the Tommies had an insurmountable lead.
Luke Iverson and Joe Reed caught touchdown passes to give St. Thomas an early 13-0 lead. That was followed by touchdown runs of six yards by Parks and 83 yards by Trettel for a 27-0 lead. Fenske found Jackson Hull for an 11-yard touchdown, then ran one in himself from 12 yards out for a 41-0 lead at the half. For the game, St. Thomas had 605 yards of total offense and averaged more than eight yards per play.
Whatever button Caruso was pushing, it worked. The Tommies delivered the early punch, and the Kohawks never got up to fight back.
“The biggest thing is the guys stayed relaxed, made plays and on offense they couldn’t take everything away from us,” Caruso said.
The Tommies also intercepted Coe quarterback Gavin Glenn three times, sacked him twice and collected seven tackles for a loss.
The Tommies have answered every challenge so far this season, and it will only get tougher this week as they prepare to host No. 4-ranked UW-Oshkosh on Saturday. The winner advances to the NCAA Semifinals and would face the UW-Whitewater/John Carroll winner.
MIAC fans were hoping for a St. Thomas/St. John’s rivalry rematch in the quarterfinals, but the Titans pulled away from the Johnnies in the fourth quarter last week for a 31-14 victory to eliminate St. John’s.
It will be the biggest test yet for St. Thomas, and the stage only gets bigger as they get closer to the reality of playing for a national championship. The Titans had 430 yards of total offense in that victory, with 332 coming on the ground. They were led by Dylan Hecker’s 198 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
For the season, UW-Oshkosh is ranked No. 7 nationally in rushing as it averages more than 280 yards per game and more than seven yards per carry. St. Thomas is ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 62 yards per game. Caruso said it’s certainly a case of irresistible force versus immovable object.
“They want to put their flag in the ground and make their statement running the ball,” Caruso said. “It’s as big a test as we’ve had yet and it’s on a big stage. Our guys are certainly excited for it.”
The Tommies and Titans have three common opponents on the season, and they’ve both beaten all three. St. Thomas and Oshkosh both beat St. John’s, UW-Stout and UW-Eau Claire. Oshkosh beat Stout 45-17 and Eau Claire 51-29. The Tommies beat Eau Claire in their opener, 42-6, and Stout 57-17 in Week 2. The only loss for UW-Oshkosh on the season? At UW-Whitewater, 17-14.
The Tommies will also be tested by quarterback Brett Kasper, who averages about 173 yards passing for the season and has 16 touchdowns with six interceptions. He threw for just 97 yards against the Johnnies as they had success running the ball. But for St. Thomas, the primary focus will be stopping the physical and punishing Titan’s run game. They’re big, and they run over defenders.
The Titans also feature a defense that’s tough to move the ball on. They allow on average about 260 yards per game, and just 12.3 points. They’re led by Reese Dziedzic, a linebacker with a team-high 73 tackles and two sacks. The Titans are ranked No. 12 in total defense.
“They have guys all over the place on D. It seems crazy but there’s a method to their madness,” Caruso said.
Caruso said Saturday’s game will come down to sticking to what’s given them so much success this year.
“Just being who we are because we are very confident in the type of football that we play,” Caruso said. “The guys know how hard we have to work every week if we’re going to go where we want to be.”
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM at about noon Saturday as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.