It wasn’t by any means a perfect performance, but Glenn Caruso was all smiles after the No. 4-ranked St. Thomas football team won at Bethel 27-6 on Saturday.

The Tommies improved to 8-0 on the season, 6-0 in MIAC play with two regular season games left. They can clinch at least a share of the MIAC title with a win at Gustavus on Saturday and would win the league outright with a victory over St. Olaf in the regular season home finale. St. Thomas will be heavily favored to win both contests.

Finishing the regular season 10-0 would give the Tommies the MIAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs and likely a first-round home playoff game.

Saturday’s win over the Royals wasn’t exactly how Caruso scripted it, but he’ll take any win he can get.

“It was just sloppy and muddy and it’s been a while since we had a game like that,” Caruso said. “Seeing all the guys with their parents on the field after the game, it just kind of made me smile to see all the mud and dirt on their gear. That’s football.”

St. Thomas has relied on a defense that doesn’t give up many points all year, and that didn’t change last week. Despite allowing 413 yards of total offense and 24 first downs, the Royals didn’t score until there was a little more than 12 minutes left in regulation. It made the St. Thomas lead 20-6.

That was answered 12 minutes later by Tucker Trettel’s 90-yard touchdown run for a 27-6 lead with less than three minutes left. The St. Thomas defense was on the field a lot, but had an answer for virtually every challenge.

The Tommies intercepted Bethel quarterback Jake Marsh three times and had two others called back by penalties. St. Thomas also had 16 pass break-ups on the day.

“We defended 97 plays and only gave up six points. That’s the most plays we’ve ever defended. It was a pretty stellar effort,” Caruso said.

St. Thomas quarterback Alex Fenske passed for 313 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. His 44-yard strike to Nick Waldvogel gave the Tommies a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

It stayed that way into the third quarter, until Fenkse found Joe Reed for a 74-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Trettel added a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter for a 20-0 lead.

Reed finished with four catches for 105 yards and a score, while Waldvogel had four catches for 61 yards and a score. For the season, Waldvogel is averaging more than 12 yards per catch on 41 catches and has six touchdowns. It’s a safe bet that when Caruso needs a play from his offense, Waldvogel will get his number called.

“He might be the best single player on our offense and the best part of it is he doesn’t care if he is or not. He’s the most thoughtful player we have. He’s the one who makes a play when we need one,” Caruso said.

It was an unusual game offensively for the Tommies. They collected more than 500 yards of total offense, but managed just 15 first downs and were 5-of-17 on third-down conversions. They also didn’t convert on any of their three tries on fourth down.

St. Thomas also lost two fumbles on potential scoring drives.

“Yards are good, but points are better. When you put up 500 yards, you should be scoring 40 points, not 20,” Caruso said.

St. Thomas was also flagged for 13 penalties on the day.

The Tommies are now focused on Saturday’s trip to St. Peter as they face a Gustavus squad somewhat decimated by injuries. Most notably, former St. John’s quarterback Matt Veldman, who transferred to Gustavus, is out for the season with an injury.

The Gusties are 4-4 on the season, 2-4 in MIAC play. They beat St. Olaf 23-3 last week to snap a three-game losing streak. Their losses are to Hamline, Concordia, Bethel and St. John’s. Their other MIAC victory is over Augsburg.

Gustavus scores about 25 points per game and features a more balanced offense than in years past. The Gusties run for about 161 yards per game and are passing for 187. Quarterback Christian Haffner is passing for about 142 yards per game and has eight touchdowns on the season. Hunter Johnson leads the wide receivers at about 58 yards per game and three touchdowns.

Karim Ortiz and Luke Martinez largely share the rushing duties. They’ve combined for about 120 yards per game and eight touchdowns.

“They’ve made more of a commitment to their run game and they cater to their personnel. They have a lot of different formations and they can spread it out or pack it in,” Caruso said. “Gustavus has always been kind of a strange place to play. You’re down in a bowl and never really know what the wind is going to do.”

When the two teams met last year in St. Peter, St. Thomas got out to a 31-6 lead at the half and cruised to a 66-9 victory.

The Gustavus defense is allowing about 27 points per game on the season. The Gusties give up nearly 150 rushing yards per game and a little more than 200 through the air.

The Tommies will need to take care of business on Saturday to ensure they’re playing for a MIAC title and more against St. Olaf in two weeks.

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 color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.