Story and photo courtesy of St. Thomas Athletics
The two “Ds” – defense and depth – that have carried St. Thomas throughout this undefeated football season came through again Saturday in a 48-17 win over St. Norbert in the opening round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The defense, ranked in the top 15 nationally in several categories, shut out St. Norbert until late in the third quarter and held the Green Knights to only nine net yards rushing and 1-of-13 third-down conversions.
The depth perhaps was more apparent than at any time this year, as freshmen who were backups in September compiled more than 400 yards of offense. Brenton Braddock led the charge of first-year players with four touchdowns and 166 rushing yards.
The result was another convincing first-round win for the No. 3 Tommies (11-0), who will be host at noon Nov. 24 to No. 17 Elmhurst (10-1), a 27-24 road victor over undefeated Coe in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The win pushed St. Thomas to 5-0 all-time in NCAA first-round playoff games, including the last four years under Coach Glenn Caruso. The Tommies have won 14 games in a row in O’Shaughnessy Stadium and own a 31-2 home record in the Caruso era.
“Which ones?” Caruso said to laughter when asked in a post-game press conference to talk about his freshmen. “They were all over the place today.”
As he has all season long, Caruso again credited depth as the difference for St. Thomas, which lost four All-Americans to graduation and several starters – including three wide receivers – to injuries.
“We have had to earn our stripes this year,” he said. “We definitely are winning the war of attrition. … We have had an inordinate amount of injuries, and a lot of guys have had to step in.”
Another slow start
For the second straight week – and only the second time this year – an opponent shut out St. Thomas in the first quarter.
St. Norbert took the opening kickoff and drove to the St. Thomas 32, but a Tyler Erstad sack on fourth down ended the drive – one of five sacks recorded by six players.
Quarterback Matt O’Connell struggled on the Tommies’ opening two drives, throwing three incomplete passes on the first and an interception in the St. Norbert end zone on the second. It was the only St. Thomas turnover of the game.
“They brought good pressure today,” O’Connell said of the Green Knights, “and they played the pass well to begin with.”
The Tommies came to life in the second quarter, scoring on four straight possessions to take a 27-0 halftime lead. They took advantage of excellent field position on their first three touchdown drives, which started at their 48, at midfield and at the St. Norbert 33, the latter after a fumble recovery by Sam Pokornowski.
Braddock ran for three touchdowns in the quarter – from four, one and five yards – and O’Connell found a wide-open Logan Marks in the end zone from 10 yards out for the tight end’s sixth touchdown reception of the season.
The final Braddock touchdown came with 18 seconds left in the half. The Tommies took over at their 24 with 2:38 to go and O’Connell completed passe of 36 and 25 yards to Matt Misiewicz and Matt Allen before Braddock’s run. It was the ninth time in the last 15 games that St. Thomas has scored in the closing two minutes of the first half.
Tommies stretch lead in second half
St. Thomas extended its lead to 34-0 with an 11-play, 64-yard drive to open the second half, capped by O’Connell’s one-yard touchdown pass to Allen.
The Green Knights averted the shutout with a touchdown and a field goal, but Braddock sprinted through a gaping hole and ran untouched for an 82-yard touchdown – the Tommies’ longest run from scrimmage this year – and a 41-10 lead.
“I saw the hole and kept running,” said Braddock, the team’s leading rusher with 814 yards, including a season-high 210 last week against St. Olaf. “I looked up at the jumbotron (the video scoreboard) to see no one was behind me.”
After an 80-yard St. Norbert touchdown pass, St. Thomas closed the scoring on a nine-yard run by backup quarterback Kyler Anderson.
The Tommies racked up 536 yards of offense – the fourth time this year they have exceeded 500 – and 407 came from freshmen. Braddock, Jack Gilliland, Jack Kaiser and Dom Truoccolo combined for 219 yards on the ground while Misiewicz, Kaiser, Gilliland, Charlie Dowdle and Pete Fitzsimmons had 188 receiving yards.
The defense again dominated the opponent. St. Norbert came into the game averaging 143 yards rushing and featured an 800-yard rusher in Austin Williams, but St. Thomas held him to 27 yards and his team netted only nine yards on the ground. The Tommies also had seven tackles for loss.
“Our goal is to shut people down week after week,” said defensive lineman Ayo Idowu, who had five tackles and broke up three passes near the line of scrimmage. “They had a good line and good backs, so I was happy we could limit them as much as we did.”
Elmhurst, St. Thomas’ next opponent, had a big day running the ball in its 27-20 win over No. 10 Coe. The Blue Jays had 429 yards of offense, including 265 on the ground, and were led by running back Scottie Williams’ 196 rushing yards.
Coe held three different leads but Elmhurst scored last, on touchdown pass with nearly 12 minutes remaining, to win its first-ever NCAA playoff game. The Blue Jays are champions of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.
In other regional playoff action, Bethel defeated Concordia of Chicago 24-23 and will face UW-Oshkosh, a 55-10 winner over St. Scholastica, next Saturday.