By DOUG HENNES
Perfect regular seasons never get old to players like Curtis James or coaches like Glenn Caruso, but they certainly are special.
The All-American senior center has been a stalwart on the offensive line for St. Thomas throughout his career, and on Saturday he stood on the field after a 35-21 win over St. Olaf and relished his team’s third consecutive 10-0 regular season.
“Last year, we were expected to be dominant with players like Dakota (Tracy), Fritz (Waldvogel) and Colin (Tobin),” James said. “This year, we had a lot of new guys who wanted to build something special together. Some people may be surprised we would go 10-0 again, but we showed depth and a real sense of chemistry.”
Caruso spoke about how proud he was that this team prevailed with such a large bulls-eye on its back all season long.
“Each championship is distinctly different, and feels different,” Caruso said. “The reason this one is extra special is that we have had to replace so many parts – four All-Americans from last year and six starters to injuries this year. It really tested our depth, and we showed that our family is stronger than ever.”
In the process, the No. 3 Tommies extended their regular-season winning streaks to 34 overall and 27 in the MIAC and earned a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs. They will host a first-round game Nov. 17 and expect one of four No. 1 seeds when the NCAA announces the 32-team field at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s a great feeling,” Caruso said in anticipating the playoffs. “The kids wanted to be in this spot, and it’s what they geared their season for. That’s an enormous edge when it comes to the playoffs, because they have the experience and they know what to expect.”
St. Thomas had two season firsts against St. Olaf – the first time it has spotted an opponent a first-quarter lead and the first time it didn’t score in the opening 15 minutes.
The Oles (7-3, 5-3) went up 7-0 nine minutes into the game after an eight-play, 87-yard drive capped by a Dan Dobson eight-yard pass to Jake Schmiesing. It was the first time in 26 quarters – going back to the St. John’s game in September – that St. Thomas trailed.
The Tommies earlier had a turnover on a Matt O’Connell fumble off a snap, and on the series after falling behind they turned the ball over on downs at the St. Olaf 38 – one of three fourth-and-1 stops by the Oles.
“We weren’t rusty; we just felt out of sorts,” Caruso said. “There wasn’t a bad vibe on the sideline, but a feeling of, ‘OK, that’s enough, let’s pick it up.’ ”
“Pick it up” meant 28 unanswered points, more of a focus on the running game and turning the ball over to freshman running back Brenton Braddock. He cut loose on the next drive for 55 rushing yards that put the ball inside the St. Olaf 10, and O’Connell hit tight end Matt Allen in the end zone for a 13-yard scoring pass and a 7-7 game.
It was Braddock Time again two series later when the Tommies took over at the St. Olaf 39. He touched the ball six times on the seven-play scoring drive – one reception for nine yards and five rushes for 27 yards, including an 11-yard run that gave St. Thomas a 14-7 lead with 1:46 remaining in the half. It was the eighth time in the last 14 games that the Tommies have scored in the closing two minutes of the first half.
“We knew we wanted to pound the ball and send a message that we would be relentless on offense,” said Braddock, who finished with 210 yards and 27 rushes. “The offensive live did a great job – everybody was blocking hard out there. They made my job easy.”
St. Thomas increased its lead to 21-7 on a four-yard run by another freshman running back – Jack Kaiser, the second-leading carrier with 49 yards on 15 rushes.
“Brenton was the workhorse today,” Caruso said, “and Jack ran hard, too. “They have taken turns doing that in different games this year.”
A St. Olaf fumble set up the fourth St. Thomas touchdown when defensive lineman Ayo Idowu jarred the ball loose from Dobson and safety Chinni Oji recovered. Two plays later from the St. Olaf 48, O’Connell found wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo open at the 20 and he dashed down the right sideline for a 28-7 lead.
The Oles closed to 28-14 on Dobson’s 38-yard pass to Stephen Aspen late in the third quarter, and the Tommies again turned to Braddock. Starting at their 7 after the kickoff, he carried the ball on 11 of the next 13 plays, gaining 84 yards before the Oles stopped O’Connell on a quarterback sneak at fourth and goal from the 1.
“I got a little winded toward the end of the drive,” Braddock said with a grin, “and I was disappointed not to get into the end zone.”
Allen finished the St. Thomas scoring with his second touchdown reception of the day – and fourth of the season – two plays after Kyler Anderson came in for O’Connell with five minutes left in the game. It was the second straight week that a tight end had two touchdown catches; Logan Marks also did so last weekend against Augsburg.
“It was just a little screen across the middle,” Allen said of the play that went for 29 yards. “I had to wait a little longer than usual, got the ball, turned up field and with some great blocks had a clear running lane.”
The Tommies finished with 61 rushes for 347 yards – both season highs – en route to 498 yards of offense. They also held St. Olaf back Michael Thai 10 yards short of a 1,000-yard season, as he finished with 111 yards on 11 rushes and caught six passes for 50 yards.
To view more Greg Smith action photos, click here:
Dan Ferrazzo has a clear lane to the end zone. (Greg Smith photo)
Tremayne Williams (32) gets one of four UST sacks. (Greg Smith photo)
Tyler Erstad (5) tips a field-goal try to deny the Oles. (Greg Smith photo)
Seniors Ayo Idowu (44) and Logan Marks (80) celebrate another 10-0 regular season. (Greg Smith photo)