After reaching the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl last year, it felt like 2016 might be the year the St. Thomas football team breaks through and wins the national title.
Mount Union showed it’s human with a regular season loss to John Carroll, snapping a regular season win streak of 112 games. That same John Carroll squad eliminated another Division III power, UW-Whitewater, last Saturday in the quarterfinals.
But No. 3-ranked St. Thomas won’t get the opportunity to avenge last year’s loss in the national title game. No. 4-ranked UW-Oshkosh eliminated the Tommies with a few early punches and forcing eight turnovers in a 34-31 victory over St. Thomas last Saturday in St. Paul.
St. Thomas quarterback Alex Fenkse had thrown just four interceptions all season. He threw four in the first half on Saturday, five total. Despite that, the Tommies had a last chance to win or force overtime and were driving against the Titans. Fenske had a pass headed for his favorite target, Nick Waldvogel, sail on him and it was intercepted to seal a 34-31 Oshkosh victory.
UW-Oshkosh advances to face John Carroll this Saturday, with the winner moving on to play for the Division III national title. For the Tommies, it was a bitter pill to swallow after it appeared they were peaking and playing their best football at the right time.
“Hats off to Oshkosh. They are a great program. We can’t expect to win any game with eight turnovers,” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. “That for us is about three months worth and it took about three hours, so that’s sad.”
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight and it was,” Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said.
Oshkosh might have had a secret weapon to prevail over St. Thomas. Wide receiver Sam Mentkowski wasn’t on the team’s depth chart that was submitted before the playoffs. He was recovering from a collar bone injury. But Saturday, he had seven catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. He made every big play when quarterback Brett Kasper threw his way.
Dylan Hecker also led a stout and physical Titans run game with 79 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. His lone score came on their opening drive to give Oshkosh a 7-0 lead.
St. Thomas answered the opening score with a touchdown drive of its own, capped by Fenske’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Matt Christenson to tie the game 7-7 early on. But Oshkosh answered with the next 17 points to take a 24-7 lead in the second quarter.
Kasper found Mentkowski for 46-yard score on a quick slant to give the Titans back the lead. Fenske was intercepted on the Tommies’ ensuing possession, and one play later, Kasper found Mentkowski down the sideline for a 38-yard score.
St. Thomas got a field goal to cut the deficit to 24-10 at half. But the Tommies hadn’t been hit in the mouth like that all season. They were on their heels on defense, and the Oshkosh defense had Fenske confused. That said, it was hardly time to panic.
The Tommies took the momentum back with a few big plays and defensive stops. Fenkse found Jackson Hull on a 31-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-17 in the third quarter. St. Thomas forced an Oshkosh punt on the next possession, which Ryan Winter blocked and returned 30 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 24-24. Suddenly, St. Thomas had life again.
“It was a fourth and short so we were in punt safe in case they were going to fake it. I heard they were going to double team the guy next to me and I had a free run to the punter,” Winter said. “I got a good bounce.”
Oshkosh regained the lead midway through the third quarter on Mentkowski’s third touchdown reception of the day. St. Thomas answered with a scoring drive of its own, capped by a 14-yard Josh Parks touchdown run to tie the game 31-31. Parks finished the day with 154 yards and the score on 21 carries, averaging more than seven yards per carry.
The back-breaker for the Tommies came on the drive that led to the Titans’ eventual game-winning field goal. Facing a 3rd-and-11 at their own 24, Devon Linzenmeyer ran for a 36-yard first down to the St. Thomas 40-yard line. The Titans overloaded the right side of their line, then ran back to the left with nothing but green grass ahead and a few key blocks.
“I thought that’s a hell of a call,” Cerroni said. “That’s what good teams do, they run the ball and ram it down your throat.”
It eventually led to Eli Wettstein’s 36-yard field goal to give the Titans a 34-31 lead with 2:30 left.
St. Thomas still had two timeouts and was driving, but Fenske’s fifth interception of the day ended the hopes of a Tommies comeback. Fenske was scrambling from pressure and had Waldvogel open, but the pressure forced the throw to sail and it was an easy interception for Oshkosh.
The loss ends the football careers of 26 St. Thomas seniors.
“It’s a group that worked tirelessly for the program and it’s tough to see them go out on a game like this,” Caruso said. “Their legacy is one of selflessness. There were a lot of role changes and sacrifices this group made. I’m probably more excited for the growth I’ve seen in them as young men.”
One silver lining: Jordan Roberts, the 2015 Division III Offensive Player of the Year, will be back next year after missing most of this season with a leg injury.
It’s a tough ending for a team that was getting better in the bigger games and seemed to have a legitimate chance for a national title after coming so close last year.