No. 4-ranked St. Thomas Football surrendured a 67-yard TD punt return by Bryce Wilkerson and a 33-yard interception return by Kris Brown in an 80-second span of the final quarter and took a season-ending 24-10 loss to No. 1-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor in Saturday's national playoff quarterfinal game in Belton, Texas.
UST's defense limited the Crusaders to 144 total yards on 55 plays, nine first downs, and 3-of-14 on third downs. UST recorded 14 tackles for loss, including six sacks. Blake Weber had 2.5 sacks and Michael Franzese had two first-half interceptions. Dylan Andrew led with nine tackles. His 2.5 tackles for loss let him close the season with 19.
MHB (13-0) extended its win streak to 28 games and home victory string to 25 with some tough defense of its own. The Crusaders recorded 15 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.
Brown's touchdown return followed UST's only turnover of the day.
St. Thomas passed for 190 yards and finished with 252 yards and 13 first downs. Gabe Green had a highlight-reel one-handed catch en route to a 43-yard reception on UST's last drive and finished with 91 yards on three catches. Josh Parks had 84 yards of offense on 21 touches, including 68 rushing yards on 20 runs.
MHB had 201 punt and kickoff returns yards on seven touches. Wilkerson scored his 11th career return touchdown (punt or kickoff). That also was the first punt return to the end zone allowed by the Tommies since the 2008 season in a six-overtime loss to St. Olaf, Glenn Caruso's third game as UST coach. Mount Union returned a blocked punt for six in the 2012 Stagg Bowl.
The Tommies (11-2) played without injured RB Tucker Trettel, their leading rusher. They never led but forged ties at 7-7 and 10-10. They tied the game on the final play of the first half on Bryan Steinsapir's career-best 49-yard field goal.
UST senior tight end Jackson Hull caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jacques Perra late in the second quarter. But a squib kickoff attempt was returned 65 yards by DeNerian Thomas to set up a MHB field goal.
Both teams missed a field goal. Steinsapir missed a 51-yarder wide left early in the third period.
The Crusaders play Brockport, a 31-28 winner on the road at Delaware Valley, in the Dec. 9 national semifinals.
"Mary Hardin-Baylor has tremendous talent, and they made some big plays, but I loved the way our guys fought," said UST coach Glenn Caruso.
Perra called the Crusaders' defense "big, bad, and strong," and forced him to tuck the ball or pass it before he was ready in many situations.
MHB coach Pete Fredenburg called the win "a great one for us. We obviously struggled on offense to gain any consistency. But in games like this, great players make big plays, and that's what happened for us in the last quarter. That punt return (by Wilkerson) was a classic, as good as I've ever seen.
"Defensively, (St. Thomas) is pretty good. We knew we'd have a tough time running the ball. They pretty much loaded the box, and Carl (Robinson) was fighting for his life."