By DOUG HENNES
A valiant comeback attempt from 17 points behind fell just short for St. Thomas on Saturday, and its football season ended with a 34-31 loss to UW-Oshkosh in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The third-ranked Tommies (12-1) nearly overcame a season-high eight turnovers and rallied from deficits three times to tie the game. But Oshkosh (12-1) put together a late decisive drive, kicking what proved to be the game-winning field goal and then sealing the win with its fifth interception before an O'Shaughnessy Stadium crowd of 3,520.
The Titans will advance to the NCAA semifinals on Dec. 10 and likely will host John Carroll, a 31-14 winner over UW-Whitewater. The other semifinal will match Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor, and the two winners will advance to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16 in Virginia.
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso praised both teams for their resiliency, and he was proud "of how our guys stayed focused and came back." But he was frustrated by the eight turnovers – "three months' worth in three hours" – and the inability to go ahead in the second half. "We didn't capitalize on two chances to take the lead," he said, "and they did."
Three of the St. Thomas turnovers came in Oshkosh territory – at the 35, 23 and 11 – and two of them led to 10 points by the Titans. Quarterback Alex Fenske's five interceptions in 26 throws exceeded the combined four interceptions he threw in 277 attempts in his first 12 games.
The loss snapped a 19-game home winning streak and ended the careers of 26 seniors, who had a 42-7 record in their era. Two seniors who made the elite CoSIDA Academic All-America team this week had outstanding finales: wide receiver Nick Waldvogel racked up 254 all-purpose yards to finish with 5,030 on his career, and nose guard Ryan Winter blocked a punt and ran it in for a touchdown.
Caruso saluted the seniors for a legacy of "selflessness" that inspired him. "My hope, my wish, is that future teams will remember what a debt of gratitude they owe to this team," he said.
Oshkosh jumps on top early
Oshkosh wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, blitzing the Tommies for 21 first-quarter points, or just five points less than the combined 26 they gave up in the opening quarter in 12 previous games. The defense had allowed only three touchdowns in its previous 22 quarters.
The Titans drove 68 yards on their opening drive to lead 7-0. St. Thomas answered with a four-yard pass from Alex Fenske to tight end Matt Christenson, and then the roof caved in on several critical plays over a four-minute span.
• A 46-yard touchdown pass from Brett Kasper to Sam Mentkowski capped the second Oshkosh drive for a 14-7 lead. On the day, the pair would connect seven times for 184 yards and touchdowns of 46, 38 and 32 yards.
• On the first play of the Tommies' next possession, the Titans intercepted Fenske and capitalized on the next play. Kasper tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Mentkowski and Oshkosh led 21-7 with 2:28 remaining in the first quarter.
• St. Thomas' only penalty of the day came early in the second quarter, but it was costly. Waldvogel returned a punt 60 yards inside the Oshkosh 10, but a blocking penalty brought the ball back to the Tommies' 36. Three plays later, Fenske fumbled a snap in the shotgun and Oshkosh recovered, later kicking a 36-yard field goal to increase its lead to 24-7.
St. Thomas bounced back and again moved inside the Oshkosh 10. But the drive stalled and the Tommies settled for a Bryan Stensapir field goal to trail 24-10. They forced punts on back-to-back Oshkosh possessions and twice moved the ball into Titan territory – first to the 35 and then to the 23 – but the drives ended on a Tucker Trettel fumble and a Fenske interception.
Second-half rallies tie game twice
Both teams opened the second half with a pair of three-and-out possessions. A 22-yard Waldvogel punt return gave the Tommies excellent field position at the Oshkosh 31. On the next play Fenske found a wide-open Jackson Hull for a touchdown, trimming the Titans' lead to 24-17.
A third consecutive stout defensive effort forced another Oshkosh punt, which Winter blocked at the 35, picked up at the 30 and ran it in for the tying touchdown.
"I heard they were going to double team the guy next to me," said Winter, who also scored after blocking a punt against Augsburg a year ago. "I had a free run to the punter, with an open field, and took it to the house."
Oshkosh again was forced to punt after a three-play possession and another big Waldvogel return – this one for 29 yards to the Titans 38 – again gave St. Thomas good field possession. Four running plays moved the Tommies to the 9, but a second-down Fenske pass was tipped and intercepted.
The Titans regained the lead on a four-play, 44-yard drive with 8:36 left in the game, and St. Thomas responded with a six-play, 65-yard drive for a 31-31 tie. Freshman halfback Josh Parks picked up 48 yards on the series, including a 15-yard scoring run.
Oshkosh twice converted third-down plays to kept alive a drive that ended with what proved to be the game-winning field goal, from 36 yards. The first play was a 36-yard run on third and 11 from the Oshkosh 24 and the second was another Kasper-Mentkowski completion.
"That was a bit of a killer," Caruso said of the unexpected third-down run. He also cited "our inability to stop possession receiving," including Mentkowski's 16-yard reception on third down, as responsible for the loss as his long touchdown catches.
Down by three points with 2:30 left in the game, the Tommies picked up two first downs to move the ball to their 40, but Oshkosh came up with its fifth interception with a minute remaining.
Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said he didn't breathe easily until the game was over.
"What a great game, said Cerroni, whose team avenged a 28-14 playoff semifinal loss to the Tommies in 2012. "Two great teams. When you go on the road, you obviously want to keep it close. For a team to have eight turnovers and still be in the game, you just look up and think, 'When is this going to end?' "
• St. Thomas is 17-7 in the NCAA playoffs during the nine-year of Caruso, who will go for his 100th win next September. He is 99-15 (.868), the second highest winning percentage of any NCAA football coach with five-year minimum at their current school.
• Twenty-three players scored 87 touchdowns this year. Winter's touchdown after the block punt was the team's 40th return touchdown under Caruso.
• Waldvogel's big day vaulted him into third place in career all-purpose yards, behind only his brother Fritz (7,432) and Gary Trettel (6,044), the father of the Tommies' starting halfback.
• Trettel and Parks just missed hitting the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. The sophomore Trettel had 66 yards and finished with 988 and Parks' 152 yards put him at 986.