Ball-control, defensive pressure fuel big UST win

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Pete Fitzsimmons finished with just four catches for 44 yards but had a huge grab at the 5-yard line to set up St. Thomas' last score of the first half.
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A tight battle and close finish expected of two top-10 ranked and unbeatens never materialized Saturday in St. Paul. The Tommies jumped off to an early lead and never looked back in Saturday's 37-0 Homecoming football win over No. 9 Bethel.

The victory gave No. 4 St. Thomas (6-0, 4-0 MIAC) sole possession of first place at the halfway point in the conference race. It also left the Royals (5-1, 3-1) in a virtual three-way tie for second with Augsburg and Concordia, which also have one loss.

The Tommies now have won 30 consecutive regular-season games, 23 in a row in the MIAC, and 11 in a row at home. Their only loss in their last 27 at home came 12-7 at the hands of Bethel in a NCAA Division III quarterfinal playoff game in December 2010.

It also was St. Thomas' most consistent performance of the year on both sides of the ball.

The UST defense again suffocated an opponent's running attack. The Royals came into the game averaging 135 yards on the ground but could muster only 31 yards on 17 carries, and they finished 1-for-11 on third-down convensions.

The UST controlled the ball for nearly 41 minutes, including a 22:24 to 7:36 advantage in the first half and had only one fumble after six turnovers against Gustavus last week. The Tommies also had a season-low four penalties for 30 yards after averaging 82 penalty yards a game.

Junior linebacker Harry Pitera had four solo tackles, a sack and a partially-blocked punt to lead the balanced defense.

St. Thomas scored on four of its first five possessions while the defense held the Royals to five three-and-out possessions, 16 plays, no first downs and 18 yards from scrimmage in building a 24-0 halftime lead.

Aaron Terrell-Byrd's 1-yard run gave the Tommies a 7-0 lead, the drive kept alive after a Garrett Maloney punt bounced off a Bethel player's foot and Ryan Deitz recovered at the Royals' 14. It was the sixth straight game in which St. Thomas has scored on its first series.

Wide receiver Dan Noehring recovered Matt O'Connell's fumble in the end zone to extend the lead to 14-0. O'Connell had run 14 yards to the goal line, where a defender jarred the ball loose and Noehring fell on it. It was the game's longest run for the sophomore quarterback, who finished with 89 yards on 20 rushes and completed 19 of 31 passes for 163 yards.

The Tommies took more than six minutes off the clock in the second quarter before settling for a Griffin Snyder 32-yard field goal to extend their lead to 17-0, and then O'Connell worked his last-minute magic again.

A week ago against Gustavus, he marched the Tommies 43 yards and completed a touchdown pass with 4.8 seconds to go. Saturday, he rolled out and completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kelly with 8.8 seconds remaining. That capped a 13-play, 57-yard drive for a 24-0 lead. It was the first career reception for Kelly, a sophomore tight end.

St. Thomas never let the Royals get on track offensively. They didn't record a first down until four minutes into the second half and got no deeper into St. Thomas territory than the 46-yard line.

Neither team scored in the third quarter, but the Tommies added two touchdowns in the fourth. Brenton Braddock finished a 13-play, 79-yard drive with a 1-yard run, and two backup linebackers joined forces to come up with the final six points. Cavan Metzler hit Bethel quarterback Erik Peterson at midfield and Steve Dejewski picked off the wobbly pass and ran it in from the Royals' 49.

St. Thomas goes on the road next Saturday, traveling to Hamline to face the Pipers. They fell to 1-5 (0-5 MIAC) after losing 63-14 at Concordia on Saturday. The UST has back-to-back games with Augsburg and Concordia-Moorhead before closing the regular season against St. Olaf.

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