|St. Thomas had its season end in ignominious fashion last season, and faces a similarly vaunted defense this week in UMHB.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
The number eight still motivates St. Thomas.
Eight, as in the number of turnovers that cost the Tommies in last year’s quarterfinal loss to UW-Oshkosh. Eight, as in the number of points the Tommies allowed with 1:27 to play in a Week 2 loss to UW-Stout.
Eight, the number of St. Thomas’s playoff appearances in the past nine seasons. Only once in those playoff appearances did the Tommies fall short of advancing to the quarterfinals, the round of eight. Following the program’s first Stagg Bowl appearance in 2012, the Tommies won just eight games in each of the next two seasons, without a playoff victory.
Most crucial to this moment, the Tommies have learned from the number eight.
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“We used it as a big motivating factor in whatever we did,” said senior center Matt Beck of last year’s quarterfinal loss. “We realized that if we put the work in today, we won’t have to go through the pain of that loss and knowing that we can correct the mistakes.”
Since blowing an eight-point lead at UW-Stout in Week 2, the Tommies have reeled off ten straight impressive victories. That loss, the program’s first regular season non-conference defeat since 2007, shaped the rest of the 2017 season.
“I think it almost had to be the best thing to happen to our team this season,” said Beck. “We rallied around each other as good as I’ve ever seen a team come together. It showed us what happens when we don’t perform at our best.”
The Tommies followed up that defeat by routing Carleton on the road in the conference opener, the start of a third consecutive undefeated run through the MIAC. Two weeks after the setback, St. Thomas defeated rival St. John’s in front of 37,000-plus fans at Target Field.
“That two-week span is really where our team set our trajectory. We knew we needed to continue that growth if we wanted to get where we wanted to be,” said coach Glenn Caruso. “Every game changes you. It should, or you’re doing something wrong. We don’t worry about playoff mode until we can get our team better. That game was a great reminder that when you schedule tough teams, it shows you that you’re going to get everybody’s ‘A’ game. That allowed us to see what we needed to do to improve, and we needed to do it pretty rapidly.”
During their current 10-game winning streak, the Tommies have outscored opponents 534-83. This run has earned them a date with defending Stagg Bowl champion Mary Hardin-Baylor, owner of a 27-game winning streak. The Week 4 rivalry victory on the biggest stage in Division III history was the springboard for the Tommies’ playoff push.
“Our growth each week from that point is great. What we are doing a really good job of is our accountability. No matter the scenario, no matter the score or the yards, there’s always a very accountable attitude that we need to grow,” said Caruso. “We’ve always been that type of team. This team really embraces its growth each week.”
That growth will be tested in a big way on Saturday. These two teams enter the quarterfinals with very similar statistical profiles.
Tale of the tape
|Yards per game||484.1||400|
|Yards allowed per game||158.8||216.8|
|Yards per play||6.1||6.2|
|Yards per play allowed||2.8||3.3|
The Crusaders enter the game ranked No. 1 in the nation; the Tommies finished the regular season ranked fourth. This matchup could have happened in Salem two weeks from now, but the Tommies earned a more difficult path after their early-season loss.
“Regardless of when you get to play a team like this, it’s pretty awesome. This is about as good as it gets in Round 3,” said Caruso. “I think the world of Pete [Fredenburg] and the program he’s been able to build. I’ve always wanted to play his team because I think they’re a phenomenal football team. That’s the most exciting part about it. You get to go up against a great football team this time of year.”
Despite facing such a formidable opponent, the Tommies remain focused on themselves. They want to do what the Cru did last year: Get back to Salem, get over the hump, and hoist the Walnut and Bronze trophy.
“It’s a big deal to have that [Stagg Bowl] experience and tell guys how special that opportunity is. That’s one of the driving factors, how close we were and how we still need to finish the job,” said senior defensive lineman Austin Jochum. “Our focus is on being the best version of ourselves we can be. If we play as not the best version of ourselves, anything can happen. As a team, if we play together, we can take it as far as we want to go.”
Back to the number eight. Despite giving the ball away eight times in last year’s quarterfinal loss, the Tommies lost that game by just three points. In his first season as the full-time starter, quarterback Jacques Perra has led a more balanced offense while the defense continues to dominate. The defense is going to play disciplined and aggressive, regardless of the score of the game. Eleven different Tommies teamed up to nab 17 interception this season. Conversely, the offense understands that turnovers are not blamed on one person; the entire unit takes responsibility for ball security.
“We take pride in making sure our running backs have a clear line of sight so they’re not getting touched,” said Beck. “Turnovers happen when defenders at the second or third level are getting clear shots at our running back.”
Perra has done his part, passing for 23 touchdowns while throwing just six interceptions.
|Berry's Jack Carroll and teammates celebrate an interception of Jacques Perra in the red zone, one of three turnovers by the Tommies.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
“What I love about his growth in our system is he’s talented enough to do everything, but in our system he understands when to take a chance, when not, when to use his feet. He’s starting to find rhythm with our top receivers, now that we’ve settled on our rotation there,” said Caruso.
As for the turnover issues that plagued the Tommies at this stage last year, there is a quiet understanding of how quickly bad decisions and sloppy play can derail a promising season.
“There’s a balance. There are certainly logistical things you have to take care of when you’re handling the ball,” said Caruso. “But if all you do is talk about turnovers, it usually ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, and not in a good way.”
As talented as the Cru are, they are just the next team on the St. Thomas schedule. The Tommies on both sides of the ball benefit from facing one of the nation’s top units every day in practice.
“That’s one of the best things. We have the opportunity to go against one of the top-ranked offenses in the country and our offense gets to go against one of the top defenses every week,” said Jochum. “It’s not a big deal who we play because we face a top unit every day of the week.”
The MIAC slate and the playoffs have presented a variety of challenges for the offense. Concordia-Moorhead utilized its size, while St. John’s played with quickness. The Tommies were able to grind out victories against both. Last Saturday, the offense neutralized Berry’s Mamadou Soumahoro, one of the most explosive defensive players in the country.
“All aspects of the offense are working together in a way that we weren’t necessarily last year,” said Beck. “On the offensive line, the relationships we’ve built help with the blocking schemes. The flow definitely has a different feeling this year.”
There are no standout stars on either side of the ball, no player with flashy statistics that stand out. This team has achieved its seventh season of double-digit victories in the past nine years thanks to its growth. That growth occurred after the Tommies experienced two humbling defeats over a three-game stretch, proving that success can be fleeting if you don’t focus on doing your job snap-to-snap. A second trip to Salem in three years is certainly within reach, but first the Tommies have to take care of business in Texas.
“The legacies left by prior teams don’t entitle us to anything, but they do give us pretty good benchmarks. Every experience that we have as a program helps at this point,” said Caruso. “This is Round 3. If we want to have the opportunity to earn another chance to be together for another Tuesday afternoon practice, that will be determined by our productivity in Round 3.”