NCAA Selection shows are generally a nerve-racking 30 minutes for most teams. Some teams don’t know if they’re in the postseason, and the others that do face the uncertainty of their next opponent.
Glenn Caruso and the No. 3-ranked St. Thomas football team were a relaxed bunch Sunday night as they watched the Division III Football Playoff Selection Show. The Tommies demolished St. Olaf 73-7 in the regular season finale for 26 seniors. They won their second straight MIAC title and third in five seasons.
They knew they were in, it was just a matter of who they were going to play. And for the second straight year, it didn’t take long to find out. St. Thomas was the first team revealed, and their opponent? Northwestern of St. Paul, the champions of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.
It’s the first NCAA Playoff appearance for the Eagles.
“We were just real excited,” Caruso said. “You’re in all day doing workouts and film and it’s the only time of the year where you can breathe and relax because you know you’re still playing even though you have no idea who you’ll play. We’ve been in the uncertain scenario before and not been picked, so it was nice to have that certainty.”
St. Thomas isn’t the only MIAC team in the Division III playoffs. St. John’s earned an at-large bid after finishing the regular season 9-1, their only loss to the Tommies. The Johnnies will host UW-Platteville Saturday, with that winner advancing to play the UW-Oshkosh/Washington University winner in the second round.
Caruso couldn’t have asked for a much better scenario on Saturday against St. Olaf. The Tommies led 45-0 at the half, and reserves were on the field by the middle of the second quarter. Key players rested for most of the second half, allowing reps third and fourth-string players and giving time off to the players who will need it for the postseason.
St. Thomas collected 535 yards of total offense, including 323 on the ground. Josh Parks and Tucker Trettel combined for 247 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. Jackson Hull started the scoring with a 53-yard touchdown catch from Alex Fenkse, who finished 11-of-19 passing for 187 yards and two scores.
Fenske’s other score was on a 6-yard play to Luke Iverson, which gave the Tommies a 45-0 lead at the half.
“We got a lot of guys in and we gave a lot of our first-team guys rest so they’ll be fresh,” Caruso said. “Having Tucker back was great, getting Josh to run the way we needed him to run was crucial. It was a great day to be a Tommie.”
The St. Thomas defense continued to dominate like it has most of the season. The Oles were limited to just 124 yards of total offense and seven first downs. St. Olaf finished 3-of-16 on third-down conversions.
The Tommies first-team defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since their victory at Bethel three weeks ago. For the season, St. Thomas is allowing only 213.5 yards in total offense and just 65 rushing yards. Most importantly, the Tommies are only allowing 12 points per game.
They’ve also collected 38 sacks, 14 interceptions and 103 tackles for a loss.
“Just to continue the growth we’ve shown on defense in the past month, that’s pretty good,” Caruso said.
St. Thomas enters the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the West Region behind only UW-Whitewater. The Tommies are likely to be at home throughout the playoffs, as long as they win, until at least the semifinal round.
It starts this week as St. Thomas hosts Northwestern. The schools are separated by about 15 minutes. The last time the Tommies faced a UMAC opponent was the 2009 playoffs, when they beat St. Scholastica 48-2.
St. Thomas and Northwestern have one common opponent this season: Augsburg. The Eagles beat Augsburg in their season-opener, 14-0. St. Thomas beat Augsburg in its third MIAC game, 55-7.
For the season, the Eagles are outscoring opponents 22-11 on average. They have three shutout victories and have only allowed 20 or more points twice this season.
On offense, Northwestern averages 324 yards per game and about 5.2 yards per play. The Eagles feature a balanced offense that throws for about 200 yards per game and runs for more than 120. They’re led by quarterback Corban Halbur, who has eight touchdowns on the season as well as eight interceptions. His favorite targets are Cody Carlson and Gavin Welch. Carlson averages about 77 yards per game and has four touchdowns, and Welch averages about 31 yards per game with three scores on the season.
B.J. Foster leads the rushing attack with about 61 yards per game and nine touchdowns. Kyle Anenson has five touchdowns.
“It’s a very balanced offense. They’re stalwart, disciplined and technically sound. There are no gaudy numbers but the balance is incredible,” Caruso said. “The quarterback is very crafty and gets out of trouble in terms of escaping pressure very well.”
Northwestern’s defense has been up for every challenge this year. The Eagles allow about 124 rushing yards per game and 200 passing yards. But they’ve collected 31 sacks, and Ben Green leads the defense with 110 tackles on the year.
The Eagles have allowed only five touchdowns in the last three weeks, so it will be a good test for the St. Thomas offense.
The winner of Saturday’s game, which is at noon, advances to the second round to face the winner of Coe/Monmouth. Caruso said the focus this week is about what he and his team can control, and the rest will take care of itself.
“Much like the last several weeks it’s focus on how good we can be because that’s really the only thing we can control,” Caruso said. “Who we play is really irrelevant because I don’t control our opponent. That said, it will be a very good test for us.”
Saturday also marks the first time, other than the Bethel victory, where weather could be a factor in the game. It will be cold, windy and snow is expected in the Twin Cities Friday and Saturday.
Tune into WCCO Radio 830 a.m. at about noon Saturday as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will have color commentary along with Fritz Waldvogel from the sidelines.