December 15, 2012

St. Thomas unfazed in first trip to Salem

More news about: St. Thomas
Mount Union pulled out all the stops, including Dan Ferrazzo taking a fake field goal snap to the end zone for a touchdown.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

SALEM, Va. -- Unfazed. Starting seven freshmen and sophomores on offense; losing their leading rusher in the game’s opening minutes; making the program’s first Stagg Bowl appearance. Nothing fazed St. Thomas on this clear Friday night in Salem.

The Tommies lost Stagg Bowl XL to Mount Union, 28-10. Until late in the final quarter, the outcome was in doubt. St. Thomas trailed just 14-7 at halftime.

Facing a 14-0 first-quarter deficit, the Tommies could have folded. They could have been satisfied with reaching the pinnacle of D-III football. St. Thomas could have been content with the trip to Salem and the excitement that comes with Stagg Bowl week. Instead, the Tommies put up a fight against a Purple Raiders team playing in its eighth straight Stagg Bowl. There was no solace in defeat.

“We all wanted this very, very badly,” said Tommies coach Glenn Caruso. “We worked tirelessly and selflessly to do so. We failed tonight.”

Mount Union took the early lead, driving down the field on the game’s first possession. Jake Simon capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. The Tommies defense stiffened after that, keeping the Purple Raiders offense out of the end zone for the remainder of the half. Mount Union had 136 yards in the first half, but 82 of those came on the opening drive.

“At times, I feel that our defensive front is underestimated,” said Caruso. “They do a great job.”

It was no surprise that special teams played a big factor in this one. Mount Union made the first impact in that phase of the game, as Charles Dieuseul blocked a Garrett Maloney punt, scooped up the ball, and ran it in for the Purple Raiders’ second score of the game. The Tommies trailed 14-0 after the first quarter, but St. Thomas had a big special teams play up its sleeve.

On fourth down at the Mount Union 10-yard line early in the second quarter, wide receiver and holder Dan Ferrazzo took the field goal snap and ran it in for a touchdown. The momentum shifted in the Tommies’ favor and a stout defensive effort kept the momentum on the newcomers’ sideline.

Matt O'Connell took some hits but was unfazed against Mount Union.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

“Our confidence was high the whole game,” said sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell.

Freshman running back Brenton Braddock started the game for St. Thomas, but only carried the ball twice before leaving with an injury that kept him out of practice all week. Braddock led the team with 207 carries, 1,125 yards, and 16 touchdowns entering the game.

The offensive burden fell on the shoulders of O’Connell. The Tommies’ defense and special teams helped relieve that burden. Ryan Deitz came up with another huge special teams play when he stripped Chris Denton on a punt return. That led to a Paul Graupner 38-yard field goal which brought St. Thomas within four with 6:27 to play in the third quarter. The Tommies were beating Mount Union at their own game.

“They are a quick defense, a pressure defense, they tackle well, and they run to the football,” said Mount Union coach Larry Kehres. “They are very well prepared and coached and they have solid special teams with the element of surprise on special teams, which is something we like to do. I certainly do [see similarities between our teams].”

After that score, St. Thomas failed to capitalize on opportunities. Mount Union proved why it was the nation’s leading defense all season, holding St. Thomas to just 35 yards of offense in the second half.

“We had opportunities to put a few more points on the board,” said Caruso. “If we would have done a better job on the offensive side of the ball, we could have been in better shape.”

The Purple Raiders pulled away with a fourth-down score on a great catch by Denton with just over a minute to play in the third quarter. Simon iced the game with his second touchdown run of the game in the fourth quarter.

“Obviously, we’re crushed right now,” said Ferrazzo. “We’re going to own up to it and learn from it.”

For a team with so many underclassmen, the Tommies will have opportunities to return. For the departing seniors, they left a legacy that no St. Thomas players before them can claim. The national semifinal trip of 2011 and the Stagg Bowl appearance in 2012 are impressive, but the loss tonight was in no way a moral victory for the Tommies.

“We’ve gotten markedly better every year,” said Caruso. “They take ownership, as do I. I failed tonight and I have no problem saying that. I will learn from it and get better and I will not make the same mistake twice.”

While Mount Union and UW-Whitewater have made it look easy in years past, returning to the Stagg Bowl in consecutive years is no easy accomplishment. Caruso called three timeouts in the final minute of the game, bringing his entire team together on the sideline during each pause in the action. He wants them to remember the moment and the feeling and to make this experience last as long as possible.

“We respect this game too much to not play every second to our hardest,” said Caruso. “I told them I loved them and that I would do anything I can to keep them playing football for one more second.”

Caruso made the trip to Salem last year, as a spectator. The fire that burned in him after watching from the stands helped drive him and his team to reach the playing field this year. Now, the fire burns deeper than ever before.

“The only way we’re going to get where we want to be, with those fireworks over our head, is if we own up to our failures and not make the same mistakes twice,” said Caruso. “The difference between being on our side and their side is sometimes so slim.”

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