Kicking game, run defense fuels Tommies victory
In Saturday's showdown of top-10 ranked teams, the No. 3 Tommies outlasted No. 10 ranked Bethel, 23-13, and moved closer to a third consecutive NCAA playoff trip.
St. Thomas (8-0 overall, 6-0 MIAC) never trailed as it ran its regular-season win streak to 22, its conference victory string to 17 and its road win streak to nine.
Coach Glenn Caruso's Toms avenged their only loss in 21 games over the last two seasons, a 12-7 NCAA playoff quarterfinal defeat to the Royals last December.
With one win in their remaining two games, the Tommies can claim the MIAC's automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs and secure at least a share of the conference title. That would also give St. Thomas its first back-to-back conference football championships since 1948 and 1949.
A crowd of nearly 6,000 saw a nearly even statistical game – UST had 335 total yards to BU's 300, with an 18-14 edge in first downs. But the Tommies outscored BU 11-1 in the kicking game as Tim Albright booted a career-best three field goals and UST also blocked a PAT.
UST senior RB Colin Tobin rushed 31 times for 133 yards and collected his 40th and 41st career touchdowns. Sophomore LB Harry Pitera had two crucial fourth-down stops among his three tackles for loss. Senior WR Fritz Waldvogel had eight receptions for 94 yards and 137 all-purpose yards on 10 touches. He moved into No. 3 in conference career charts in both receptions (265) and receiving yards (3,799).
Bethel (5-2, 3-2) was led by senior QB Josh Aakre, who passes for 163 yards and a TD and ran for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Both offenses came in averaging more than 40 points and 420 yards a game. St. Thomas' rushing defense was ranked No. 2 in Division III at 44.7 yards allowed per game and faced a Bethel running attack that averaged 288 yards a game, 10th best in the country.
But the Royals could only gain 137 yards on the ground, including 32 in the first half, and came up short on three fourth-and-short situations in St. Thomas territory. The Tommies limited the conference's leading rusher, Brandon Marquardt to 10 yards on 10 carries, had eight tackles for loss, two pickoffs and five pass break-ups.
The Tommies jumped to a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a pair of four-yard touchdown runs by Tobin. Bethel picked up two quick first downs on its next series, but on fourth-and-one at the Tommies' 46, Marquardt took a pitch and was tackled short of a first down by Pitera.
St. Thomas took over and drove to the Bethel 31, where Albright kicked the longest field goal of his career – 48 yards – for a 17-0 lead halfway through the second quarter.
Pitera ended Bethel's next series at the St. Thomas 25 with a 10-yard, fourth-and-2 sack of Aakre.
The Royals got on the scoreboard with 1:10 left in the first half on Reese Walker's 33-yard touchdown reception from Aakre, ending St. Thomas' shutout streak at nine quarters. UST quickly marched downfield. Two Dakota Tracy completions of seven and 33 yards to Waldvogel and a 15-yard penalty put the ball at the Bethel 20, but the Royals stiffened at the 3-yard-line, and Albright kicked a 20-yard field goal with six seconds left in the half for a 20-7 halftime lead.
Bethel took the second-half kickoff and drove to the St. Thomas 3-yard-line, but Aakre's fourth-down pass into the end zone went incomplete. The Royals held the Tommies to a three-and-out series and drove 41 yards in six plays, with Aakre running the ball in from the 5-yard-line to narrow the deficit to 20-13. The Tommies blocked the extra-point kick to keep the margin at seven.
Neither team could move the ball on its next three possessions, but St. Thomas salted away the win with 2:55 left in the game on an Albright 25-yard field goal to make the score 23-13. The 13-play drive to the Bethel 8-yard-line chewed up 70 yards and nearly seven minutes on the clock.
Bethel gamely fought back, driving quickly to the St. Thomas 25, where Aakre threw into the left corner of the end zone. UST cornerback Jack Gavin's acrobatic interception sealed the victory.
The Tommies return home Saturday for their last regular-season game in O'Shaughnessy Stadium, facing Gustavus Adolphus. The Gusties (1-6, 1-4) lost 24-16 to St. John's on Saturday in St. Peter, their third loss of eight points or less this season.
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