By DOUG HENNES
Everybody on the St. Thomas football team knew coming into Saturday’s showdown against once-beaten Concordia that the Tommies would need a win to stay alive in their quest for a fifth-straight trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Sophomore running back Jack Kaiser assessed the situation this way: “We had the fire under our butts,” he said. “It was that simple.”
The fire worked. St. Thomas, led by Kaiser’s 134 rushing yards and three touchdowns, climbed out of an early 13-0 hole to dominate the No. 21 Cobbers (7-2, 5-2 MIAC) in the second half and walk away with a 34-20 win as it moved into a second-place tie in the MIAC.
Coach Glenn Caruso said the No. 18 Tommies (also 7-2, 5-2) got the job done by playing hard-nosed football and controlling both lines of scrimmage.
“That was a big-time win, gentlemen,” he told his team in the midfield huddle after the game. “Defense: What a phenomenal job, coming out in the second half and pitching a shutout. Tremendous job; tremendous attitude.”
Caruso was equally effusive in praising his offensive line, which opened huge holes for Kaiser and freshman Nick Waldvogel. They alternated series in the backfield and Waldvogel rushed for 100 yards, marking the first time this year that two Tommies have exceeded 100 yards on the ground.
“The line played huge against a defense that prides itself on stopping the run,” Caruso said. “We were able to run the ball when we wanted, and that’s because of the commitment of the line and our two tight ends and our fullback – guys like Matt Allen, Cole Kelly and Willie Schneider.”
St. Thomas was out of sync on both sides of the ball at the outset, spotting Concordia a 13-0 lead seven minutes into the game – the first points given up by the Tommies in the first quarter this year.
The Cobbers took the opening kickoff and marched 84 yards in eight plays. Quarterback Griffin Neal completed four passes for 74 yards, the final one a 20-yard touchdown strike for a 6-0 lead. Sean Hamlin blocked the extra point.
St. Thomas had a three-and-out possession on its first series, and Concordia deflected Garrett Maloney’s punt to take over at the Tommies’ 42. Cornerback Mozus Ikuenobe picked off a Neal pass, but three plays later St. Thomas quarterback Alex Fenske fumbled after a sack. Neal needed just one play -– a 29-yard keeper up the middle -– to extend the Cobbers’ lead to 13-0.
“I really wasn’t too nervous because it was so early in the game,” Caruso said. “It didn’t surprise me that Concordia got off to a fast start, because they have a lot of talent, but our guys handled it well. They kept things on a very even keel.”
The Tommies responded with touchdowns on their next five drives, with the first three giving them a 21-13 lead midway through the second quarter.
Kaiser ran for 40 yards on the first scoring drive -- which included a 41-yard Fenske pass to Charlie Dowdle -- and scored from the 3. Linebacker Harry Pitera recovered a Concordia fumble and three plays later Waldvogel’s eight-yard run put the Tommies ahead 14-13. Fenske made it 21-13 with a 26-yard pass to a wide-open Dowdle, capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive.
Concordia bounced back with its own long drive -– 13 plays and 5:35 -– to close to 21-20 with 2:41 left in the half, but couldn’t stop St. Thomas from scoring again before the break.
Three Fenske completions moved the Tommies from their 29 to the Concordia 23, and Kaiser finished off the drive with three runs, including a six-yard touchdown and a 27-20 lead. He had 88 rushing yards in the half and finished the day with nine first downs on the ground.
“Our O-line makes it so easy for me,” said Kaiser, who has rushed for 449 yards in the last four games. “Those guys do all the hard work.”
St. Thomas took the second-half kickoff and scored the game’s last seven points. It was the Tommies’ longest drive of the season in terms of time – 6:58 – and ended with Kaiser’s third touchdown on a six-yard run, which put him over 100 yards on the day.
Up 34-20, the St. Thomas defense took over. It limited the Cobbers to four second-half possessions, including two three-and-outs, and only 73 yards and six first downs. Neal, after running for 58 yards and passing for 129 in the first half, had only eight on the ground and 59 in the air in the second.
“We knew we had to step it up,” senior defensive lineman Riley Dombek said. “We have a mentality of bend but don’t break. We knew we had to be more aggressive in the second half -– more blitzing and more guys coming hard. We wanted to make sure he (Neal) didn’t have time to throw.”
Pitera felt the keys to the second half were getting the early 14-point lead, stopping the Cobbers on first down and forcing Neal to throw on second down and long.
“We knew they would have to throw to catch up,” he said. “We blitzed more and added pressure . . . and that made the difference.”
Concordia twice advanced the ball into St. Thomas territory in the second half -– to the 44 and 43 -– but both drives ended in punts. The Tommies were unable to score over the last 22 minutes but ate up the clock by keeping the ball on the ground. Waldvogel had 80 yards rushing in the second half, including 38 on the game’s final drive.
“The offensive line got the job done against one of the best defensive lines we’ve played this year,” Waldvogel said. “We dominated the line, and to be able to trust these guys allowed Jack and me to run hard and know the holes would be there.”
“We hit our groove today,” sophomore right tackle David Simmet said. “The running backs hit the holes and just kept going.”
St. Thomas will wrap up its regular season on Nov. 16 against St. Olaf in Northfield. The Oles (0-6, 1-7) have lost four straight games to the Tommies, including 35-21 a year ago. Caruso's first St. Thomas loss came 29-23 in six overtimes at St. Olaf in 2008.
With a win over the Oles, St. Thomas would clinch a tie for second place in the MIAC and remain in consideration for a playoff bid. The NCAA will announce the pairings for the 32-team field on Nov. 17.
“If we play well next week,” Caruso said, “I would feel very good about our opportunity to get into the playoffs.”
In other MIAC action Saturday, Bethel (9-0, 7-0) clinched the conference title with a 47-0 shutout of St. Olaf. St. John’s defeated Hamline 20-14 and Gustavus topped Carleton 34-19. Augsburg defeated Macalester 34-16 in non-conference play.
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