MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It will be a bittersweet day for 17 seniors on Saturday as the St. Thomas football team plays its final regular season home game against Gustavus.
It will also mark the end of their football careers as the Tommies are, at best, now a longshot for an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Playoffs. St. Thomas was all but eliminated last Saturday despite dominating Carleton in an 83-7 victory. St. John’s had its own dominating performance in a 31-8 win over Bethel to pull even with the Royals in the MIAC title race with one game left for each team.
St. John’s is at St. Olaf Saturday and will be a heavy favorite to win. If the Johnnies take care of business, they’ll earn the MIAC’s automatic bid to the playoffs. Bethel hosts Augsburg Saturday, needing a win to have any chance at the playoffs and extend its season. Technically the two teams would be co-champions at 7-1, but St. John’s holds the tiebreaker with its win over Bethel. The Royals still have a good shot at the playoffs, especially if they get a convincing win over the Auggies.
For 17 St. Thomas seniors, they get a chance to play the final game of their college football career on their home field. And they’ll need a complete team effort to leave winners and avoid their first three-loss season since coach Glenn Caruso’s first year with the Tommies.
Last week, St. Thomas had 10 different players score touchdowns and led 49-0 at the half on the way to an 83-7 win at Carleton. The 83 points is a school record. In his second straight start, John Gould had 175 yards passing and three touchdowns in just one half of action. The St. Thomas defense also forced four fumbles, blocked a punt and allowed only 157 yards in total offense.
The Tommies will face a much tougher test and a much better opponent this week as Gustavus visits St. Paul. The Gusties got off to a 6-0 start in a season full of potential, but have lost three straight against the league’s top teams. It started with a 29-19 loss to St. John’s, followed by a 30-23 loss to Bethel and last week’s 35-26 setback to Concordia (Moorhead).
The St. Thomas defense will face one of its biggest tests of the season as the Gusties have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. They average 488 yards of total offense per game and are led by the top passer in the MIAC. Quarterback Seth Heinrichs, a transfer from St. John’s, has more than 3,000 passing yards on the season with 34 touchdowns. He’s averaging 345 yards per game. His favorite targets are Gabriel and Matt Boyce, who combine for more than 220 yards per game and 26 touchdowns on the season.
Gustavus also runs the ball for about 136 yards per game. That attack is led by Luke Martinez, who runs for about 88 yards per game.
The St. Thomas defense allows about 19 points per game and just more than 300 yards of total offense. Gustavus is outscoring opponents on average 38-22 despite a 6-3 record. The Tommies will need one of their better defensive efforts, especially in the secondary, to end their season with a victory.
The Tommies’ best defense might be to run the ball in the expected cold weather and snow. Jack Kaiser runs for nearly 72 of St. Thomas’s average of 240 rushing yards per game. Nick Waldvogel and Brenton Braddock combine to average more than 100 yards as well. The three have combined for 21 touchdowns on the season.
St. Thomas is 6-0 on Senior Day under Caruso as the Tommies head into the contest ranked No. 22 in the nation. They’re also in the top 15 in the country in several offensive categories, including scoring (44.4 points per game), total offense (501 yards per game), sacks allowed (seven) and first downs (26). St. Thomas needs seven points on Saturday to set a new regular season record for scoring. The previous record was 406 in 2010.
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 provide color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel.
St. Thomas will find out Sunday if it earns an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Playoffs. If the Tommies don’t, it would be their second straight season missing the playoffs after playing for a national title in 2012.