By DOUG HENNES
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -– A few eyebrows were raised a week ago when St. Thomas could manage only 55 yards rushing and relied almost exclusively on a passing attack to defeat St. Norbert in the home opener.
No such worries came up Saturday for the Tommies, whose ground game asserted itself early and often against UW-River Falls, scoring all six touchdowns and netting 229 yards rushing en route to a 45-22 win over the Falcons.
The No. 4 Tommies (2-0) survived more than three hours in nearly 90-degree heat and emerged with another non-conference victory that left Coach Glenn Caruso pleased how his team has shed the rust it showed against St. Norbert.
“You guys played like every play was your last play,” Caruso told the Tommies in a midfield huddle after the game. “I was excited to see such genuine enthusiasm both out on the field and on the sideline.”
St. Thomas, in a word, was efficient throughout the day, scoring every time it was in the red zone on five touchdowns and one field goal. The Tommies had no turnovers, forced two River Falls fumbles, blocked an extra point and partially blocked a punt.
As they did last week, the Tommies trailed early after the Falcons took the opening kickoff and drove 72 yards in 19 plays before stalling at the 5 and settling for a 23-yard field goal. The drive lasted more than nine minutes.
“We didn’t know what they would do,” Caruso said of the Falcons, who were playing their first game under a new coach and offensive coordinator. “It was important to put them on a long field. We were willing to play cautiously at the beginning, and then we stiffened on defense when we had to.”
St. Thomas wasted little time regaining the lead and rattled off 31 consecutive points over the next 24 minutes to put the game out of reach.
Long third-down passes from Dakota Tracy to Ben Noehring (27 yards) and Fritz Waldvogel (28 yards) set up the Tommies’ first score –- a three-yard run by senior halfback Colin Tobin. He finished with four rushing touchdowns and 121 yards.
Linebacker Tony Danna, who led St. Thomas with 13 tackles, and safety Ben Christopher recovered fumbles on the next two River Falls series. Tim Albright’s 36-yard field goal after the second turnover boosted the St. Thomas lead to 10-3.
Another Falcons miscue –- a snap over the punter’s head -– led to the Tommies’ second touchdown. They took over on the River Falls 18 and Tobin had runs of five and 13 yards for a 17-3 lead.
A pair of razzle-dazzle plays at the beginning of the second half put the game out of reach.
Senior All-American Fritz Waldvogel fielded the River Falls kickoff at his 16 and flipped the ball on a reverse to Kyle Whitley. The sophomore wide receiver scooted 81 yards to the Falcons’ 3, where Tobin rushed three times before scoring. Whitley credited perfect execution for the success of the reverse, which the Tommies have worked on in practice.
“There were great blocks and everyone sealed the edge for me,” he said. “I had to get to the corner after getting the ball from Fritz and then I just ran down the sideline. I got squeezed by the kicker, had to cut it back and ran out of space. I thought I was going to make it, but we still got the seven, and that’s what counts.”
The St. Thomas defense forced a three-and-out punt on the next River Falls series and Tobin made short work of the ensuing drive. On the first play, he broke a tackle near the line and raced 73 yards to score his fourth touchdown and give the Tommies a 31-3 lead three minutes into the second half.
“Just great blocking and execution,” Tobin said. “It’s great to see the offensive line back to form and to see the improvement from week one to week two.”
Caruso pointed out that it wasn’t just the offensive line blocking on the run, praising Waldvogel for how he followed the play down the field.
“Fritz was on the backside and he got in front of the last defender chasing Colin to make the block,” Caruso said. “I love to see that kind of hustle.”
River Falls cut the deficit to 31-15 with two touchdowns, one on an 80-yard pass play, but St. Thomas responded with two more touchdowns on runs by Tracy from the 1 and his backup -– freshman Matt O’Connell of nearby Clear Lake -– from the 10. On the first drive, freshman halfback Ryan Toney ran seven consecutive plays and picked up 39 yards to the 1 before Tracy scored on fourth down. Toney finished with 77 yards.
St. Thomas returns home on Saturday to open MIAC play against St. Olaf, with kickoff at 1:10 p.m. in O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The Oles are 2-0 after defeating Simpson 31-23 on the road Saturday.
Last year, the Tommies defeated St. Olaf 49-14 in Northfield. Caruso is 2-1 against the Oles, also winning 27-16 two years ago after losing 29-23 in six overtimes -– an NCAA Division III record-long game -– in 2008.
Click here to see box score:http://www.tommiesports.com/ftbl/stats/GAME1.HTM