New QB leads late comeback win for Toms
Tommie sophomore quarterback Matt O'Connell made his first collegiate start a memorable one.
O'Connell contributed to two late fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 52-second span as No. 8-ranked St. Thomas (1-0) rallied for a 27-24 victory over UW-Eau Claire (0-1) in non-conference football play Saturday in Eau Claire, Wis.
St. Thomas ran its regular-season win streak to 25 but needed to overcome a rash of penalties and mistakes to post a rare fourth-quarter comeback victory.
The UST defense allowed 283 total yards but limited the Blugold offense to just 10 yards on 14 plays in the game's final 14:00.
The Tommies trailed 24-13 with 6:00 to play before O'Connell and Dan Ferrazzo connected on a short slant play that Ferrazzo turned into a 49-yard TD reception. O'Connell hit Logan Marks for a two-point conversion to cut the Blugold lead to 24-21.
UST's onside kick attempt was unsuccessful and Eau Claire took over at the Tommie 44-yard line with 3:44 left to go. But Tyler Erstad's interception on the next play gave the Tommies the ball at their own 45-yard line.
Three plays later, O'Connell broke free for a 32-yard go-ahead touchdown run. The PAT kick failed but St. Thomas led 27-24 with 2:54 remaining.
The Tommies appeared to stop UWEC on downs but a fourth-down holding penalty kept the final drive alive. Four plays later Sean Hamlin's interception in the final 60 seconds iced UST's comeback victory.
The Tommies rolled up 420 total yards and 163 return yards but were hurt by 13 penalties, two lost fumbles -- including one in the red zone -- two missed field goals and a 2-of-12 third-down conversion rate.
After scoring on a 22-yard O'Connell to Dan Noehring TD pass in the game's first three minutes, the Tommies were held to just two Griffin Snyder field goals over the next 50 minutes on the game clock. The Toms only punted once all day but still needed the furious rally to pull out a win.
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said on his WCCO Radio post-game show that his team overcame periods of sloppy and ineffective play with perseverance.
"There was a lot tears and a lot of pride on that field today but what you saw today was a program win, a University of St. Thomas win. That game was won on mental toughness," Caruso said. "On that last drive, our guys were very calm and cool. If you want to talk about a warrior, I'll talk about Matt O'Connell all day long. I'll go to war with that kid forever."
O'Connell completed 19-of-37 passes for 266 yards and rushed 13 times for 46 yards. Noehring and Ferrazzo each had four catches. Sophomores Ryan Toney and Aaron Terrell-Byrd combined for 201 all-purpose yards. Byrd rushed 13 times for 70 yards and caught three passes for 27 yards. Toney had three returns for 60 yards, one catch for nine yards and six rushes for 35 yards. Freshman Jack Gilliland had three kick returns for 100 yards including a 63 yarder.
For Eau Claire, Joel Sweeney rushed for 104 yards on 27 carries and tight end Austin Goetsch had seven grabs for 86 yards. QB Austin Neu completed 20-of-32 passes for 196 yards but had the two late fourth-quarter interceptions.
Senior Mike Valesano had 11 tackles and senior Ayo Idowu added six tackles and one sack for the UST defense.
St. Thomas opens its home season next Saturday against UW-River Falls while Eau Claire is home to face St. John's.