MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The excitement of a road win for the St. Thomas football team at Gustavus was a bit tempered Saturday as the Tommies headed back to St. Paul.
St. Thomas, ranked No. 6 in Division III headed into the game, actually dropped three spots in the polls despite claiming a 20-12 win over the Gusties. The game wasn’t particularly clean for either team, but the rest of the season has some uncertainty for the Tommies. They’re without starting quarterback Matt O’Connell, likely for the rest of the season.
O’Connell had already rushed for a touchdown before suffering a significant injury during the second quarter of Saturday’s win. He was scrambling, found an open receiver and had stopped to throw when he was hit low and his right leg buckled. The extent of the exact injury wasn’t disclosed after the game, but he likely suffered a compound fracture of his right leg or ankle. He went down in pain immediately, and players for both sides instantly called out for trainers to get on the field.
Both teams got down on their knees in prayer, and O’Connell was eventually carted off the field with a large boot on his right leg. John Gould came into replace O’Connell, and eventually Alex Fenske took over behind center. Fenske might have the inside track to start at Bethel this week after throwing for two touchdown passes in the victory.
One of them went to Nick Waldvogel in the third quarter to give the Tommies a 13-6 lead. With a 13-12 lead in the fourth, Fenske had a pass headed for the end zone tipped by a Gustavus defender and Cole Kelly grabbed it to give St. Thomas a 20-12 lead.
It was an otherwise sloppy day for both teams as they each battled windy conditions and a limited passing game. St. Thomas passed for just 113 yards on the day but ran for 143 yards. The Tommies run defense, one of the best in the nation, limited Gustavus to just 20 yards rushing and less than a yard on average per carry. The Gusties passed for 150 yards on the day in a game where field position was the biggest difference.
In the larger scheme of things, St. Thomas is playing for its playoff life this weekend at Bethel, which is ranked No. 5 in Division III. The Royals dismantled Concordia (Moorhead) 45-22 on Saturday and are now the lone unbeaten in the MIAC. Glenn Caruso is 5-0 in the regular season for his career against the Royals, but the Tommies will be underdogs this week going on the road without their top starter behind center.
St. John’s currently sits second in the MIAC at 3-1 after holding off Augsburg in Collegeville 30-28 on Saturday. Concordia and the Tommies are third at 2-1, but St. Thomas likely needs to win out to have a chance at the playoffs. After Bethel this weekend, the Tommies still have to face Augsburg and Concordia.
The big question mark now for St. Thomas is who will be playing quarterback the rest of the season. Their normal back-up, Ben Duncan, is out injured. That leaves the job between Fenske, a better passer, and Gould, more of a run threat. Both are sophomores who have combined for one start.
Before the injury, O’Connell was averaging about 166 yards passing per game and had three touchdowns on the season. He also averaged about 53 yards rushing per game and had three rushing touchdowns. While the numbers aren’t eye-popping for five games, it’s the leadership from the junior quarterback that will be greatly missed.
What’s also a little concerning is Brenton Braddock, projected to be the top running back for the Tommies entering the season, had only three carries for five yards on Saturday. He didn’t see the field again after a fumble in the first quarter that Gustavus recovered. It’s not clear whether he was injured or if it was a coach’s decision. Jack Kaiser carried the bulk of the load the rest of the game, rushing 19 times for 87 yards to lead St. Thomas.
Caruso called it a great team win Saturday as the Tommies rallied together after O’Connell’s injury. If they lose to Bethel Saturday, their postseason hopes are pretty much over and they’ll fall out of the top 10 in the national rankings for the first time in 50 weeks.
Check back later this week as the WCCO Tommies Blog will preview the trip to Bethel on Saturday.