December 1, 2011

The last unranked team

More news about: St. John Fisher | St. Thomas
Paul Vosburgh has been coaching St. John Fisher since the program was a club team.
St. John Fisher athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell
D3sports.com

If you haven't taken a close look at the final eight teams standing in this year's playoff field, consider this -- seven of the eight are ranked in the top 10 in the country.

The eighth? That would be unranked St. John Fisher. But don't tell the Cardinals they don't belong. Coach Paul Vosburgh will simply point out the schedule St. John Fisher faced this season, a slate that included two other playoff teams (Salisbury, Hobart), the defending Empire 8 champion (Alfred) and perennial playoff contenders (Ithaca, Springfield).

"I think that's helped us here in the playoffs because we've played two outstanding teams back-to-back," Vosburgh said. "... What helped us in getting ready for those two playoff games was the strength of our competition during the year. We really didn't have any soft teams to play, no one that we could say, 'This is definitely a win.' "

The Cardinals knocked off undefeated conference champions in Johns Hopkins and Delaware Valley on the road in consecutive weeks in the playoffs. That's no small feat. But Fisher will face its toughest test Saturday, when it lines up against undefeated MIAC champion St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

The Tommies have lost just once since the start of the 2010 season -- a 12-7 loss to conference rival Bethel in last year's quarterfinals. They also rank No. 1 in the country in rushing defense (46.8 yards allowed per game), No. 3 in total defense (212.2 yards allowed per game), and boast a balanced offense that averages just under 40 points per game.

"They're a very good football team," Vosburgh said. "There's a reason they're 12-0, I'll tell you that. They're just a good, solid football, and they are very good on defense. ... They don't have any apparent weaknesses."

For St. John Fisher to continue its impressive run, it will have to slow down St. Thomas running back Colin Tobin, a task much easier said than done. Tobin, who has piled up 1,443 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground this season, has rushed for 206 and 260 yards, respectively, in the Tommies' first two playoff games.

St. John Fisher's defense has overcome a number of key injuries, particularly to its linebacker corps early in the season, and turned in a strong season. But this will be the most potent rushing attack its faced all season, save for Salisbury's machine-like triple-option attack.

Cody Foster is part of a defensive front three with four sophomores on its part of the two-deep. Brenden Moore is in a linebacking corps that has five seniors and a junior.
St. John Fisher athletics photo

"Nobody's really found a way to [slow Tobin], I don't think," Vosburgh said with an uneasy laugh. "He's great, and he's got a very good offensive line in front of him. They've got some big ol' horses up there that get it done too."

Should the Cardinals be successful in slowing Tobin's pace, they'll be tested by the dynamic aerial duo of quarterback Dakota Tracy and wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel, a Gagliardi Trophy finalist. Waldvogel has also proven to be lethal both as a kick and punt returner, so it would behoove the Cardinals to keep a close eye on No. 4 whenever he's on the field.

While all of the numbers and superlatives favor St. Thomas, St. John Fisher at least has the element of uncertainty on its side. The Cardinals lost starting quarterback Ryan Kramer about midway through their first playoff game against Johns Hopkins with what Vosburgh called a pulled groin/hip flexor.

Junior Ahmed Hassanien, who began the season as St. John Fisher's No. 3 quarterback, stepped in and tossed the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter, and helped the Cardinals hang on in the second half. Hassanien made his first career start against Delaware Valley and turned in a strong performance, even taking a page out of the scrambling Kramer's book with a 32-yard touchdown run.

"I thought Ahmed did a really good job for his first start, to go in against a team the caliber of Del Valley," Vosburgh said. "The good thing is he allowed the game to come to him. He didn't try to force anything, that's why he didn't have any interceptions.

"He had a great run for a touchdown. He read that play. They were going to jump the bubble pass that he was going to throw [but] he read that before it happened and he just decided it was time to take off with the ball. ... He played within the framework of our team and managed the game very well for us."

Vosburgh, who said Kramer probably could have played against Delaware Valley "if we would have really needed him," remained coy in his assessment of Kramer's status against St. Thomas, calling the junior day to day.

St. Thomas has had a lot to celebrate over the past two seasons, with its only loss an injury-depleted 12-7 defeat to Bethel in last year's quarterfinals.

Understandably, St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said his team is "absolutely" preparing for both Kramer, a dual-threat option, and Hassanien, a pocket passer.

Caruso said his team has also focused on cleaning up any lingering turnover issues, an important aspect considering St. John Fisher has intercepted nine passes in its two playoff victories. The Tommies lost three fumbles and threw an interception against Monmouth, which ultimately left the team in the rare position of being tied at halftime.

"That's one of the better things that came out of the game, that we were in a situation at halftime where it wasn't a given," Caruso said. "Our kids had to fight through that and they certainly did."

Caruso called St. John Fisher a well-balanced team, and not simply in terms of its run-to-pass ratio, but from top to bottom across the roster.

"They have a very solid defense, they have a very solid offense, their kicking game puts them in good field position [and] I think they're very well coached," Caruso said.

Though the Cardinals have won consecutive road games, they face a flight for the first time in school history. But Vosburgh is quick to point out the two-and-a-half hour flight will be shorter than the five-to-six hour bus rides the team has had in the last two weeks. Caruso said he doesn't expect the flight to have any negative effect on the team.

"At this point they're kind of road warriors," Caruso said. "There's nothing about going on the road that should surprise or shock them anymore because this is the fifth week in a row they've been doing it. It's been the same story every week -- undefeated team they know nothing about, they go into their home stadium and they're able to play extremely well."

The Cardinals are in the NCAA playoffs for just the fourth time in the school history, but three trips -- including this one -- have been remarkably successful. In 2006, the Cardinals reached the semifinals before falling to Mount Union. The following season, the Cardinals advanced to the quarterfinals before again losing to Mount Union.

"I think this team has some of those characteristics," Vosburgh said. "They've got a lot of fight in them, got a good work ethic in them and they're a close group of young men. ... [Now it's] different names, different people, different physical strengths and weaknesses, but the character things, a lot of the good things that helped those teams win, we also have on this 2011 team."

Should the Cardinals defeat the Tommies, they'll face the winner of the UW-Whitewater-Salisbury matchup in the semifinals. But first they'll have to get past the No. 3 Tommies, a team hungry to advance to the semifinals after falling in the quarterfinals each of the last two seasons.

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