By DOUG HENNES
St. Thomas came into the NCAA playoffs ranked first in NCAA Division III in a host of defensive categories, including rushing, total yards and first downs allowed, plus third-down conversions given up and tackles for loss.
With a "new" season awaiting the St. Thomas defense on Saturday, the question was how it would respond to a potent Eureka offense featuring the division's leading scorer and second-leading rusher.
The answer: The Tommies responded well – right in line with how they have played in recent weeks – as they shut down their opponent and helped their team cruise to a 47-8 win over Eureka before 1,037 fans in a blustery O'Shaughnessy Stadium.
The victory propels fourth-ranked St. Thomas (10-1) into a second-round game on Saturday Nov. 25 against undefeated Berry (Ga.) College, which defeated Huntingdon 34-20. The NCAA will announce the location of the game – St. Paul or Mount Berry, Ga., on Sunday.
Coach Glenn Caruso, while pleased with the win, was concerned about the Tommies' struggles to establish a tempo and maintain a rhythm against the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference champion Red Devils (8-3), who were making their first NCAA appearance.
"The first round of the playoffs always feels a little different, playing a team you've never faced," he said. "We were too herky-jerky at the beginning."
While the offense took a few possessions to find its stride, the defense made sure Eureka pulled no surprises, especially with running back LeAnthony Reasnover. The junior scored 194 points and ran for 1,834 yards during the regular season but never got on track against St. Thomas. He had only 41 yards (24 of them coming on one carry) in 27 rushes.
"He is as good of a running back as that league has seen in a long time," said Caruso, who thought Reasnover would pose "a tough matchup" for the Tommies.
The defense set the early tone, forcing punts on six straight three-and-out possessions before Eureka earned its only first-half first down late in the second quarter. Up 19-0 at half, St. Thomas put the game away with a 40-0 lead after three third-quarter touchdowns in a five-minute span on a pass, an interception return for six, and a blocked punt and return to the end zone.
On the day, seven different Tommies scored the seven touchdowns, and for the year, 23 different players have touchdowns.
Tommies start slowly
St. Thomas' second touchdown, capping a 93-yard drive early in the second quarter, came on a spectacular run by freshman halfback Tom Loeffler. He took a handoff from Perra at the Eureka 27, hurdled an upright Red Devil defender at the 20 and ran for the touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
"I didn't think about it – it just happened," said Loeffler, who in his only year of track and field at 5-foot-9 finished 10th in the shot put at the state high school meet last June with a throw of more than 51 feet. "I knew if I could get by him it would be a touchdown. I thought of going around him but just jumped over him."
Another short field after a poor punt contributed to the Tommies' third touchdown and a 19-0 halftime lead. They took over on the Eureka 36 and needed only 1:35 and seven plays to score, with Josh Parks running in from the 16. He had 85 yards on the ground in the half and 106 on the day.
"They were loading the box early with nine guys and a low safety," Parks said. "We knew they wanted to stop the run and did a good job of bottling us up for a while. We just had to stay committed to run. It's a momentum thing. If you chip away, something is going to open up."
Third quarter explosion
St. Thomas extinguished any Eureka hopes for a rally in the third quarter when all three units – offense, defense and special teams – scored touchdowns in lightning-like fashion.
Good field position again led to a St. Thomas touchdown on its first possession of the half. Perra hit Jackson Hull on a 15-yard scoring pass on fourth and seven, and a Stephen Wagner two-point run made the score 27-0.
Three plays later, junior linebacker Adam Brant intercepted a pass at the Eureka 29 and ran untouched into the end zone. Brant called his first interception of the year a "big energy play." He also led the Tommies in tackles with six solos and two assists, including two of the team's 14 tackles for loss.
Eureka was forced to punt deep in its own territory on its next possession and the Tommies, who had come close to blocking earlier punts, finally came through. Jack Dummer blocked the punt and Andrew Inserra picked it up at the 4 and stepped into the end zone for a touchdown and a 40-0 lead. Dummer later recovered a Eureka fumble at the St. Thomas 5 to thwart a late threat.
"It takes 11 to make that play," Dummer said about the blocked punt and how his teammates perfectly executed the play. "I was grateful to be at the point to block the punt."
Eureka finally broke through early in the fourth quarter to spoil what would have been St. Thomas' fifth shutout of the season. The Red Devils drove 53 yards in seven plays and converted a two-point run to make the score 40-8.
The Tommies needed only two plays to score again. Loeffler returned the kickoff to the Eureka 41, and 15 yards were added because of a face-mask penalty. On the first play from scrimmage, Wagner burst up the middle for a 26-yard touchdown run.
Among the areas that Caruso hopes to "clean up" over the next week are third- and fourth-down efficiency. The Tommies came in converting 41 percent of third-down chances and 66 percent on fourth down, but were 25 and 50 percent, respectively, against Eureka. Three fourth-down failed attempts in the first half gave Red Devils the ball in St. Thomas territory – at the 46, 26 and 32 – but they could not take advantage of any of those situations.
"It's a balance between how well our chances are to convert and how well our defense is playing," Caruso said. "We go for it more on fourth down than the average team . . . we like being able to attack out of that."
Looking forward to the second-round matchup, Caruso said he is impressed with the strides that Berry has made since adding football in 2013. The Vikings were 0-9 in 2013, 2-8 in 2014, 7-3 in 2015 and 9-1 last year before going undefeated this year.
"It reminds me a lot of where we were as a program six, seven years ago," he said, "and starting to get into the playoffs."
Berry is champion of the Southern Athletic Association and is ranked No. 18 by d3football.com. Huntingdon, which finished 9-2, led 10-6 in the second quarter but the Vikings rallied.
• The win gave Tommies their seventh 10-plus win season in Caruso's 10 years, with a record of 109-16 (.872). They are 18-7 overall in the playoffs during that span, including 17-2 at home, and have outscored their first-round opponents 380-103 (47.5 to 12.9 average scoring margin).
• St. Thomas has allowed only 28 points in its last six games, including only three TDs scored on its defense. Twenty-six players have a sack, a forced or recovered fumble, or an interception. The only opponent with more than 100 yards rushing on the Toms was UW-Eau Claire in the season opener on Sept. 2.
• In the last five games, nine different players on defense and special teams have nine scores, including eight touchdowns and a two-point blocked PAT return.
• Senior LB Dylan Andrew had three tackles for loss and now has a team-best 16.5 on the season.
• St. Thomas outscored Eureka 21-0 in the third quarter and have outscored all 11 foes 149-9 in that period.