By DOUG HENNES
One year ago, St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso sat in the visitors’ locker room at UW-Whitewater and cried after his team lost 20-0 to the defending Division III champions and were denied the opportunity to play for the national title.
On Saturday, Caruso sat in his own locker room just steps from O’Shaughnessy Stadium and cried again –- but for another reason.
“I’m a crier,” he said, “but they were different tears today.”
They sure were.
They were tears shed in elation after a 28-14 semifinal win for No. 3 St. Thomas (14-0) over No. 5 UW-Oshkosh. The Tommies earned their first trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and will face 10-time national champion Mount Union at 6 p.m. CST Friday in Salem Va. That game will be televised live nationally by ESPN U.
And they were tears shed in gratitude for the opportunity to keep together this team –- what Caruso calls “The Family” -– one more week.
“Forget About Me,” he yelled to his players as they hoisted him above the midfield huddle after the game. “I Love You,” they responded, completing the FAMILY acronym. They twice repeated the chant before running to the stands to sing their victory song.
In the locker room, Caruso took a marker and checked off seven of eight goals written four months ago on a white board, starting with a 3.2 team grade-point average and including a 10-0 MIAC championship and NCAA region champs. One goal remains: “National champs.”
“It’s a long road, gentlemen, and it isn’t over yet,” he said. “You are one of two teams to give yourselves the opportunity to play every possible game of football in a season.”
He went on to recall his sadness in traveling to Salem last December without his players to watch the Mount Union-Whitewater championship game. This time, they’ll be along.
“I’m so blessed to make the trip with you,” he said.
The win was the 17th in a row for the Tommies at home and improved their O’Shaughnessy record to 34-2 during Caruso’s five-year run. He has the most football coaching victories in school history, with 57 over the last five years, breaking the mark held with Frank Deig.
The win also allowed Caruso to surpass his previous season’s win total for the seventh consecutive year as a head coach. He was 2-7 and 4-5 at Macalester before moving to St. Thomas in 2008 and compiling records of 7-3, 11-2, 12-1, 13-1 and now 14-0.
The 4,000 fans had hardly settled in their seats when the Tommies scored just 14 seconds into the game. Before the first quarter was over they had a 21-0 lead, thanks to a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, a blocked punt and a 16-play drive.
On its first play from scrimmage after the opening kickoff, Oshkosh mishandled a pitch. Defensive lineman Ayo Idowu grabbed the ball at the Titans’ 25 and ran for the touchdown. It was his second fumble recovery and touchdown run in three playoff games, the first an 86-yard jaunt against Elmhurst.
“It was just like two weeks ago,” said Idowu, who finished with five tackles (two for losses). "Ryan Deitz hit the running back, who was bobbling the ball the whole time. I saw the hit and saw the ball and scooped it up. Riley Dombek laid a big block on one guy. I wouldn’t have gotten in without that block.”
Reminded that the run was 61 yards shorter than the Elmhurst return, Idowu cracked a big smile and said, “Thank God!”
The Tommies held Oshkosh on the next series and Kyle Coyne blocked the punt, with Deitz recovering at the Titans’ 24. Quarterback Matt O’Connell, celebrating his 20th birthday, hit tight end Logan Marks with a six-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead 4:12 into the game.
Oshkosh couldn’t move on its next possession and St. Thomas took over on its 25. O’Connell touched the ball on nine of the drive’s 16 plays, with the longest play a 16-yard completion to Dan Ferrazzo and a first down inside the Oshkosh 1. O’Connell sneaked in for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead with two minutes left to play in the first quarter.
Caruso and Curtis James, the Tommies’ All-American center, both called the nearly eight-minute drive a key sequence in the game.
“It reminded me of Whitewater coming out after halftime last year against us and scoring on a long drive,” James said. “We just wore them (the Titans) down on that drive.”
Despite the three-touchdown deficit, Oshkosh didn’t panic. It was the fourth straight week that the Titans trailed by 10 or more points, and in those games they went on to outscore their opponents 113-0 to advance in the playoffs.
“We’ve been doing that a lot lately,” Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said of the early deficits, “but it caught us up to us today, and against a very good football team.”
Caruso thought the Titans were far from finished, with more than three quarters to play.
“It’s a big hole, but it’s a big hole they’ve overcome three times in last three weeks,” he said. “They have such a powerful offense and a confidence -– not a cockiness, but a confidence -– that they could come back.”
Oshkosh got back on track on its first series in the second quarter.
An O’Connell “pooch” punt pinned the Titans at their 7, and three plays later quarterback Nate Wara and wide receiver Cory Wipperfurth connected on a 77-yard touchdown pass -– the second longest play given up by the St. Thomas defense this year. Wara found Wipperfurth near the sideline at the Tommies’ 40, and he eluded a defender and ran untouched into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-7.
Both teams struggled to move the ball the remainder of the half, turning the ball over on three consecutive possessions. An O’Connell interception was followed by a Wara fumble, forced by Idowu and recovered by Dombek, who ran to the Oshkosh 32. Three plays later, the Titans again intercepted O’Connell.
The Tommies nearly scored on the last play of the half. With five seconds to go, O’Connell threw a “Hail Mary” pass toward the end zone from the Oshkosh 45, and wide receiver Charlie Dowdle came down with the ball near the goal line. An officials’ review showed he was just short, and the half ended 21-7.
St. Thomas held the Oshkosh offense, ranked No. 11 in Division III with nearly 500 yards a game, to 150 yards in the half, including only five yards on the ground. More than half of the Titans’ first-half yards came on the touchdown pass. Neither team had a penalty in the half.
On its second drive of the third quarter, St. Thomas went 80 yards in 10 plays to restore a three-touchdown lead at 28-7. O’Connell and Braddock each carried for 20 yards on the drive, with the quarterback running for the touchdown from the 8.
“We wanted to chip away at them,” said Braddock, who ran for 117 yards on a season-high 30 rushes and has five 100-yard games this year. “Matt did a great job of running the ball, too (24 rushes for 59 yards) and taking some pressure off me.”
Oshkosh bounced back on its next drive, moving 78 yards in 13 plays, with Wara sneaking in from the 1 and cutting the St. Thomas lead to 28-14.
O’Connell fumbled on the first play of the next series and Oshkosh took over on the Tommies’ 25, but they held on fourth down and two yards. Oshkosh got the ball back after a three-and-out St. Thomas possession, but Dan Bedor forced and recovered a first-play fumble at the Titans’ 39.
Braddock picked up two rushing first downs before the drive stalled, and Oshkosh blocked a 38-yard Paul Graupner field goal attempt four minutes into the fourth quarter.
The St. Thomas defense again stiffened, holding Oshkosh to back-to-back three-and-out drives, and the Tommies killed the last five minutes with an eight-play drive. Oshkosh ran only seven plays and netted only two yards in the fourth quarter.
As it has all season, the St. Thomas defense again dominated the line of scrimmage and shut down a potent running attack.
Oshkosh came in ranked No. 16 in Division III with 257 rushing yards per game and a 1,571-yard rusher in Cole Myrha. But he was held to 18 yards and his team rushed for only 25 yards against the Tommies, whose run defense ranks No. 10 at 80 yards per game. It was the sixth game the Tommies have held an opponent to under 100 yards on the ground.
“They just beat us,” Cerroni said when asked why Oshkosh couldn’t establish a running game. “They were better than us today.”
Wara, one of four finalists for Division III Player of the Year, completed 20 of 34 passes for 266 yards. He broke his pinky finger in Oshkosh’s quarterfinal win Dec. 1 at Linfield, but neither he nor his coach would use the injury as an excuse for the loss.
“No excuses,” Cerroni said, “and he’ll tell you the same thing.”
“My throwing was fine,” Wara said. “We didn’t take any deep shots … and we were frustrated when we couldn’t finish off drives (in St. Thomas territory).”
St. Thomas, ranked No. 6 in holding opposing offenses to 27 percent success on third-down conversions, thwarted the Titans on both third down (4 of 14) and fourth down (0 of 2) plays. The Tommies converted 9 of 20 third downs and all three fourth-down attempts.
“Those can be daggers sometimes,” Caruso said of keeping the offense on the field on fourth down, “and we’re not perfect. But we felt we had good play calling against what they were giving us.”
Three hours after the game, Caruso reflected on his 14-0 team and pointed out that he routinely is asked if this the best team he has coached at St. Thomas.
“It’s very difficult for me to answer that question because it’s tough to separate who we are by year,” he said. “Sir Isaac Newton once said, ‘If I have seen further than others, it’s because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.’ I think it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge that if we have seen uncharted territory this year it is because we stand on the shoulders of the players who came before us.”
UST/Oshkosh box score:
No. 1 Mount Union (14-0) advanced to its 16th Division III title game with a 48-35 win over second-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor.
The Purple Raiders trailed 28-14 going in the fourth quarter, but they scored five touchdowns in the game's final 14:53. The winning score came with five seconds remaining on a 12-yard run, and they added a final touchdown on a 25-yard fumble recovery run with no time left.
“They’re awesome,” Caruso said of the Raiders, and he cited Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, with 10 national championships and a 341-24-3 record in 27 years at Mount Union, as a standard-bearer for Division III coaches.
NOTES: Saturday's game will be rebroadcast on ESPN U channel next Friday at 1 p.m., five hours before the title game... The Dec. 14 Stagg Bowl game will not be a sellout. Tommie fans can buy tickets on campus Monday, with more details to follow. Tickets are $12.50 for adults and $7 for students. They also can be purchased via Ticketmaster and at the Salem Civic Center... UST's 14 wins and four playoff victories are school records for one season... Saturday's win continued an impressive 2012 calendar year for St. Thomas sports. Last March, Tommie women's basketball placed third nationally and finished 31-2 last March, with a 30-game win streak; last May, Tommie baseball placed third in the nation; three weeks ago, St. Thomas won its first NCAA volleyball crown and closed with a 40-1 record; and now UST football gets to the championship game for the first time in program history, the first conference team to advance to Salem since 2003.
Sean Hamlin almost broke a fourth-quarter punt return., netting a 21-yard gain. (Mark Brown photo)
QB's Matt O'Connell (above and below), celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday and improved to 13-0 as a starter. (Mark Brown photo)
Freshman Charlie Dowdle (85) pulls in a 43-yard Hail Mary try but was tacked just inches short of the goal line on the final play of the first half. (Mark Brown photo)
Coach Glenn Caruso and players thank the Tommie home crowd following Saturday's historic victory. (Mark Brown photo)
Riley Dombek took off with a fumbled ball that popped into his hands in the second quarter. (Mark Brown photo)
Ayo Idowu (44) loves that north end zone at Palmer Field, as he turned in his second fumble return TD of the postseason into six points. (Mark Brown photo)
Caruso's Crew led the cheers on Saturday, part of 4,000 fans from both teams that saw several exciting plays in a 28-14 UST victory. (Mark Brown photo)