By DOUG HENNES
As it has done so many times this year, St. Thomas jumped to a quick lead Saturday. Up 22-0 over Berry College with three minutes gone in the second quarter, the Tommies appeared to be on their way to another lopsided win and an easy path to a third-round NCAA Division III playoff game.
The win turned out to be anything but lopsided, however, and the path was not easy. St. Thomas emerged victorious, surviving three turnovers, thanks to a stubborn defense that shut down Berry's running game and came up with two second-half interceptions.
The 29-13 victory moves the No. 4-ranked Tommies (11-1) into a quarterfinal game Saturday, Dec. 2, against defending national champion and top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-0). The location of the game will be announced Sunday, and it is expected to be at Mary Hardin-Baylor, in Belton, Texas, because of its higher seeding and better record.
"It's the chance to see the best of the best," Coach Glenn Caruso said of Mary Hardin-Baylor, which defeated Linfield 24-0 in its Sweet Sixteen game Saturday. He called the Cru "disciplined, thoughtful and well-coached . . . a very cohesive team."
Lack of cohesion on offense was on Caruso's mind in the win over Berry, the Southern Athletic Association champion located 75 miles north of Atlanta. The Vikings are in only their fifth year of football.
While they dominated time of possession 41:07 to 18:53 and ran a school-record 97 plays, the Tommies struggled on offense after scoring on three of their first four drives. They came away empty-handed on seven straight possessions, five of them inside the Berry 32, turning the ball over three times and failing to convert three times on fourth down.
"Gross," Caruso said when asked about the failure to execute on those drives. "Our ball security was deplorable," but he also credited Berry's hard-hitting defense for causing five St. Thomas fumbles, two of which were lost. The Vikings came into the game plus-13 in takeaways. "This is a very good football team," he said. "Zero surprise in how they played."
Tommies roll early, then stall
Aside from a first-possession punt, St. Thomas had a flawless first quarter on offense and defense.
The defense forced six consecutive three-and-out possessions to open the game and holding Berry to 14 yards net rushing – the seventh opponent held under 15 net yards on the ground this season. The Vikings didn't pick up their initial first down of the first half until five minutes remained.
That first St. Thomas punt – a 61-yard "pooch" kick by quarterback Jacques Perra to the Berry 1 – helped to set up the Tommies' first touchdown. Berry was unable to move the ball and the Tommies took over at the Vikings' 47. Three plays later from the 36, Perra threw to wide receiver Gabe Green, who outfought a defender for the ball at the goal line and scored.
"It was a double move play," said Green, a sophomore who moved from quarterback to wide receiver this year and finished with career highs of eight catches and 128 yards. "I faked a slant and went deep. Coach always talks about being aggressive in going for the ball. I went up for it and was fortunate to come down with it."
The second St. Thomas touchdown came on its longest drive of the day – 13 plays – and Perra and Green connected again, this time from 16 yards, for their eighth touchdown of the year. The Tommies converted twice on short fourth-down plays during the 67-yard drive.
On the next possession, it looked like Perra might have his third touchdown pass when tight end Jackson Finn rumbled toward the pylon from the Berry 32 but he was ruled out inside the 1. Josh Parks bulled his way in for his team-leading 10th touchdown of the year, and holder Dylan Andrew ran in for two points and a 22-0 lead with 12 minutes left in the half.
The Berry defense suddenly stiffened and St. Thomas failed to move the ball on its next four possessions. The first two ended on downs in Berry territory, at the 26 and 32. The Vikings later recovered a Tucker Trettel fumble.
"We settled down on defense, made some adjustments and got some stops," said Berry coach Tony Kunzewski. "We knew they (St. Thomas) are special on defense and that we had to keep it a low-scoring game."
After a St. Thomas punt with 37 seconds to go, Berry backup quarterback Tate Adcock hit Trey Ciresi with a 37-yard pass and a first down at the Tommies' 5. Four straight Adcock passes fell incomplete and the Vikings remained scoreless.
'That was a killer right before half," Kunczewski said. "We thought, 'How many times are we going to get to the 5-yard line on this team?' "
If Berry had scored, "that could have changed things," Caruso said, considering how well the Vikings played in the second half.
Berry tries to rally
Despite excellent field position on its first three possessions of the second half, St. Thomas failed to score. The first drive ended on a Perra interception at the Berry 12, the Tommies turned the ball over on downs at the Berry 28 and Parks fumbled at the Berry 31.
The Vikings got on the scoreboard late in the third quarter, driving 72 yards in seven plays. Adcock connected with Mason Kinsey on two passes, the first for 58 yards to the St. Thomas 13 and the second a seven-yard touchdown pass.
The Tommies bounced back with a 10-play, 66-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter to lead 29-7. Stephen Wagner capped the drive with a six-yard touchdown run.
On Berry's next drive Adcock and Kinsey teamed up on back-to-back passes – 34 and 8 yards – to cut the St. Thomas lead to 29-13. On the day, the duo connected on seven passes for 143 yards.
St. Thomas recovered an onside kick thaks to an illegal tough by the Vikings just short of 10 yards, and later thwarted Berry's final shot with a Mark Dowdle interception with 90 seconds remaining. Earlier in the half, Michael Franzese picked off an Adcock pass.
• The Tommies are 19-7 overall in the playoffs during the Caruso era and 18-2 at home, winning all 13 first- and second-round games here and outscoring opponents 622-192. The win gave St. Thomas its seventh 11-win season in Caruso's decade as coach.
• Green has found he likes the wide receiver position better than quarterback because he can play "with more of an aggressive mentality. As quarterback, you need to take control of everything," he said, "and as a receiver I get a lot of one-on-one matchups. I like those."
• Perra played quarterback and punter at Roseville High School and didn't expect to get in a lot of kicking at St. Thomas. He is averaging 47 yards on 11 punts, all kicked from the shotgun position, so opponents typically don't drop back a returner but play closer to the line of scrimmage.
• The St. Thomas defense came into the game ranked first in four categories in per-game averages: 147.8 yards total yards, 11.7 tackles for loss, 8.4 first downs and 20.2 percent third-down conversion. The Tommies rank second in rushing touchdowns allowed (2) and rushing yards allowed (23.7).
• Twenty-three different Tommies have touchdowns this year, and St. Thomas ranks second in the NCAA in total touchdowns (83, one behind Mount Union), second in points per game (50.2, behind Mount Union's 51.6) and fourth in rushing touchdowns (48).