Toms secure conference title share, NCAA berth
Tommies won its first Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship in two decades with a 43-6 thumping of Gustavus Adolphus on wind-swept Lloyd Hollingsworth Field.
The victory pushed the No. 4 Tommies' record to 9-0 (7-0 MIAC), clinched a tie for the conference title and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
They also became the first St. Thomas team to start since 1923. They can win their first outright title since 1983 – and the only 10-0 squad in school history – with a win over Carleton next Saturday.
Coach Glenn Caruso, in congratulating Tommy Becker on a strong game, joked that his senior linebacker must have been one or two years old the last time St. Thomas won the MIAC. Becker laughed later and said he actually was three at the time, but Fritz Waldvogel was only a newborn. He celebrated his 20th birthday earlier this month.
"This has been a long time coming," said Waldvogel, a junior wide receiver from St. Thomas Academy, who ran back the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. "We've been breaking records, we beat St. John's, we're the first 9-0 team since 1923 and now we have won the conference title. It's all special."
The formula for St. Thomas on Saturday again proved to be a dominant second half. Leading only 14-6 at halftime, they took firm control of both lines of scrimmage in the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on three straight series over a nine-minute span and holding the Gusties to only 69 yards.
"We're built for the fourth quarter, emotionally," Caruso said. "As the game goes on, we get sharper – emotionally and physically and mentally."
St. Thomas started strong, moving 76 yards in 11 plays to open the scoring. Halfback Ben Wartman, who picked up 24 yards rushing on the drive, threw for the last 14 to Waldvogel for a touchdown. He had four receptions for 51 yards on the drive.
After stopping Gustavus on a 3-and-out series, St. Thomas went up 14-0 on a two-yard run by quarterback Dakota Tracy, who improved his record as a starter to 13-0.
The Gusties bounced back on the next series with a flashy exotic pass of their own to cut the deficit to 14-6. Tight end Cody Williams hit a wide-open Cody Sukalski 10 yards behind the St. Thomas secondary for a 50-yard touchdown pass. Becker blocked the extra point.
Gustavus threatened to score at the end of the half after blocking Garrett Maloney's punt and recovering at the Tommies' 18 with 18 seconds to go. But Becker intercepted Logan Becker (no relation) on the next play to snuff out the threat.
"The blocked punt was partially my fault," said UST's Becker, who comes in to block on punts. "On the interception, he threw a low ball and I just got my hands on it."
Waldvogel gave the Tommies some appreciated breathing room 12 seconds into the third quarter when he returned his first kickoff or punt of the year for a touchdown after scoring six such touchdowns a year ago. He credited "perfect" blocking.
"You need all 11 guys clicking on a play like that, and they did," he said. "They made some great blocks early, and once I hit the 50, I knew I had it."
The touchdown pushed Waldvogel over 5,000 all-purpose yards for his career, and he finished the game at 5,045, No. 2 on the career list behind Gary Trettel's 6,044 yards from 1988 to 1990 . . . the last year St. Thomas won the MIAC title. Waldvogel also had seven catches for 66 yards against the Gusties, giving him 204 for his career.
Neither team could mount a drive in its next two possessions, and then St. Thomas took charge after Ayo Idowu recovered a fumble at the Gustavus 35.
A sack and a penalty pushed the ball back into St. Thomas territory, but three straight pass completions – two by Tracy and one by Waldvogel – covered 49 yards and gave the Tommies a first down at the 5. Wartman ran it in for a touchdown and a 29-6 lead. It was the 45th touchdown of his career, tying Trettel for first on the all-time Tommie list.
"That's an honor," said Wartman, the All-American running back who rushed for 81 yards and is just 185 yards shy of Jake Barkley's career record of 3,969 set in 1999-2002. "But the win is the most important thing. It's a wonderful feeling. Who would have thought, after finishing 2-8 (in 2007), that we would turn everything around and get to this point?"
Gustavus went 3-and-out on its next series, after which St. Thomas launched its longest drive of the game – 84 yards in 11 plays – to increase its lead to 36-6 early in the fourth quarter. Colin Tobin picked up 44 yards on five carries, scoring from five yards out.
The Tommies took advantage of another short field on the next series, needing just three plays to go 49 yards for the final score. Tobin scored again, this time from 11 yards out, to match Wartman's 81 yards on the ground. It was the second straight week that Tobin gained 80 yards in the second half – he did the same against Bethel on Oct. 22.
"I was just banging away," Tobin, a junior from Chicago Fenwick, said of his average of 8.1 yards per carry against the Gusties. "The offensive line never stopped working hard. It opened some really nice holes."
Total offense edge
For the game, St. Thomas more than doubled Gustavus in yardage – 430 to 197 – and had a 23-12 advantage in first downs. The Tommies had 228 yards on the ground and 202 in the air, continuing their remarkable balance – coming into the game, they had averaged 205 rushing yards and 204 passing yards.
St. Thomas also racked up a season high 92 yards on 12 penalties. Caruso called those "unacceptable," and Becker agreed that the team needs to cut down on penalties heading into the playoffs.
"We'll work harder in practice," he said. "It comes down to little things. We'll get back to work and clean those things up."
The only obstacle to a perfect regular season is Carleton. The Knights, who lost to St. John's and fell to 3-5 (2-4 MIAC), will travel to O'Shaughnessy Stadium for Saturday's 1 p.m. game. St. Thomas then has a bye week before the NCAA playoffs begin Nov. 20.
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