St. Thomas football earned its first trip to the NCAA Division III championship game with a 28-14 win over UW-Oshkosh on Saturday in O'Shaughnessy Stadium.
The No. 3 Tommies (14-0) will face 10-time national champion Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl at 6 p.m. CST Friday in Salem, Va. That game will be televised live on ESPN.
St. Thomas exploded for three first-quarter touchdowns, thanks to a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, a blocked punt and a 16-play drive, and deployed gritty defense to hold off the Titans after they twice closed to within 14 points.
The Tommies' rushing defense again dominated. Oshkosh came in ranked No. 16 in Division III with 257 yards per game but could muster only 25 yards against St. Thomas, whose run defense is No. 10 at 80 yards per game. Oshkosh gave up 191 rushing yards –- 100 more than its season average -– including 117 to Brenton Braddock.
The win was the 17th in a row for the Tommies at home and improved their O'Shaughnessy record to 34-2 during Coach Glenn Caruso's five-year run. He now has the most football coaching victories in school history, with 57 over the last five years. The 14 wins and four playoff victories are school records for one season.
Saturday's win continued an impressive 2012 calendar year for St. Thomas sports. The Tommie women's basketball team placed third nationally and finished 31-2 last March; Tommie baseball placed third in the nation last May; St. Thomas won its first NCAA volleyball crown three weeks ago and closed with a 40-1 record; and now UST football gets to the championship game for the first time in school history, the first MIAC team headed to Salem since 2003.
St. Thomas needed only 14 seconds to put points on the board.
On its first play from scrimmage after the opening kickoff, Oshkosh mishandled a pitch. Ayo Idowu scooped up the ball at the Titans' 25 and ran for a touchdown. It was his second fumble recovery and touchdown run in three playoff games, the first an 86-yard jaunt against Elmhurst on Nov. 24. It was the 23rd return touchdown of Caruso's five-year era and 11th by the defense.
The Tommies held Oshkosh on the next series and Kyle Coyne blocked the punt, with Ryan Deitz recovering at the Titans' 24. Six plays later, quarterback Matt O'Connell hit tight end Logan Marks with a six-yard throwback "snare" pass and a 14-0 lead just 4:12 into the game.
Oshkosh couldn't move on its next possession and St. Thomas took over on its 25. O'Connell touched the ball on nine of the drive's 16 plays, with the longest play a 16-yard completion to wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo and a first down inside the Oshkosh 1. O'Connell sneaked the ball in for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
Two series later, Oshkosh quarterback Nate Wara and wide receiver Cory Wipperfurth connected on a 77-yard touchdown pass –- the longest play given up by the St. Thomas defense this year. Wara found Wipperfurth near the sideline at the Tommies' 40, and he eluded a defender and ran untouched into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-7.
Both teams struggled to move the ball the remainder of the half, turning the ball over on three straight possessions. An O'Connell interception was followed by a Wara fumble, forced by Idowu and recovered by lineman Riley Dombek, who ran to the Oshkosh 32. Three plays later, the Titans again intercepted O'Connell.
The Tommies nearly scored on the last play of the half. With five seconds to go, O'Connell threw a "Hail Mary" pass toward the end zone from the Oshkosh 44, and wide receiver Charlie Dowdle came down with the ball near the goal line. An officials' review showed he was just short or breaking the plane, and the half ended 21-7.
St. Thomas held the Oshkosh offense, ranked No. 11 in Division III with nearly 500 yards a game, to 150 yards in the first half, including only five yards on the ground. More than half of the Titans' first-half yards came on the touchdown pass.
On their second drive of the third quarter, St. Thomas went 80 yards in 10 plays to restore a three-touchdown lead at 28-7. O'Connell and Brenton Braddock each carried for 20 yards on the drive, with the quarterback running for the touchdown from the 8.
Oshkosh bounced back on its next drive, moving 78 yards in 13 plays, with Wara sneaking in from the 1 and cutting the St. Thomas lead to 28-14.
O'Connell fumbled on the first play of the next series and Oshkosh took over on the Tommies' 26, but they held on downs. Oshkosh got the ball back after a three-and-out St. Thomas possession, but Dan Bedor recovered a first-play fumble at the Titans' 39.
Braddock picked up two rushing first downs but the drive stalled and Oshkosh blocked a 38-yard Paul Graupner field goal attempt. The St. Thomas defense again stiffened, however, holding Oshkosh to back-to-back three-and-out drives in the fourth quarter, and the Tommies killed the last five minutes with an eight-play drive that ended at the Oshkosh 12.