The St. Thomas football team clinched an NCAA bid after beating Carleton 80-3 on Saturday in its final regular season home game. The Tommies also moved up to No. 4 in the D3football.com national poll.

St. Thomas has a one-game lead on St. John’s, who defeated Bethel 21-0 on Saturday to improve to 8-1 on the season and 6-1 in league play. Since the Tommies beat St. John’s earlier this season, Saturday’s win over Carleton clinched the league’s automatic bid for St. Thomas.

But there is still plenty to play for as the Tommies head to St. Peter Saturday to face Gustavus. A St. Thomas loss, paired with a Johnnies’ victory over St. Olaf, means the two programs would share the MIAC title. St. Thomas wants the league crown all for itself, plus a 10-0 regular season all but guarantees a top regional ranking and home field in the NCAA Division III Playoffs.

The Johnnies will be heavily favored to beat St. Olaf, a program that has just two wins on the season. St. John’s would likely receive an at-large bid to the playoffs, assuming they win.

Many teams with a postseason spot already secured might have a mental letdown going into their final regular season game. But I wouldn’t expect that from St. Thomas, not with sole possession of the league title on the line and the chance to play at home in the playoffs.

It would be Glenn Caruso’s fourth MIAC title in eight seasons as head coach. It’s also the program’s first since the Tommies made a run to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Division III national title game, in 2012.

“It’s among the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had in my coaching career. I hope we haven’t peaked yet,” Caruso told WCCO’s Mike Max Wednesday night.

Caruso noted on his radio show Wednesday night that the team that lost to Mount Union in the national title game was somewhat depleted due to injury. So far this season, a majority of the skill players on each side of the ball have started all nine games so far.

The St. Thomas defense, the best in the MIAC and among the best in the country, gets arguably its biggest challenge of the season this Saturday. The Tommies face the top quarterback in the MIAC in Mitch Hendricks, a St. John’s transfer, and the No. 2-ranked offense in the league.

Hendricks is passing for about 320 yards per game this season, tops in the MIAC. He also has 32 passing touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Those numbers go up against a St. Thomas defense that, statistically, leads in the MIAC in passing yards allowed at about 123. The Tommies also lead the league in scoring defense, allowing just eight points per game.

The biggest key for the St. Thomas defense this year has been getting pressure on the quarterback. The Tommies have 35 sacks on the season, led by Anthony King-Forman with 6.5. Jesse Addo has 5.5 sacks, Ryan Winter has 5, Eric Sutton has 4.5 and Steve Harrell and Austin Jochum each have three.

Hendricks has a clear favorite target in Matt Boyce, the leading receiver in the MIAC. He’s averaging 134 yards per game and has 15 touchdowns. His brother, Gabe Boyce, averages about 68 yards per game and has seven touchdowns. This will be the greatest challenge of the season so far for the St. Thomas secondary.

“The Boyce brothers are lights out. Hendricks is fantastic. He doesn’t look like a typical quarterback, but he’s mentally tough and he’s lighting it up this year,” Caruso said.

Gustavus has needed every point and every yard Hendricks has been able to put up this season. The Gusties allow about 28 points per game and almost 400 yards of total offense. They’re in the middle of the pack in both passing and rushing defense.

St. Thomas should have plenty of confidence going up against the Gustavus defense after putting up 80 on Carleton last week. That included more than 600 yards of total offense.

The Gusties have been an interesting program this year.  They won their first six games, then lost 49-27 at St. John’s and 33-24 at Bethel in consecutive weeks. Gustavus knocked off Concordia 41-34 last week, and it’s a team that will be hungry for its seniors, who are playing their final college game.

“Coach (Peter) Haugen has done an amazing job down there,” Caruso said.

The St. Thomas offense, led by John Gould’s 217 yards per game and 21 touchdowns, will need to be efficient again this week. It doesn’t hurt that the Tommies have the No. 2 rusher in the MIAC in Jordan Roberts, who runs for 134 yards per game and has 21 rushing touchdowns.

When the two teams met last year in St. Paul, St. Thomas led 21-14 at half and out-scored the Gusties 36-21 in the second half for a 57-35 victory. This year, the Tommies have been among the top teams in the country in the second half.

A win Saturday for the Tommies would lock up their first 10-0 regular season and sole MIAC crown since 2012, when they made a run to the Division III national title game. It also likely secures home field for a good chunk of the playoffs.

Tune into Newsradio 830 WCCO at about 1 p.m. as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.

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