By DOUG HENNES
During Glenn Caruso's coaching tenure at St. Thomas, there has been nothing quite like home-field advantage in the opening round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs, and that certainly was the case again on Saturday.
The third-ranked Tommies (11-0) cruised to a 43-0 win over Northwestern-St. Paul on a sunny but chilly 29-degree day in O'Shaughnessy Stadium, forcing four turnovers and dominating the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference champion Eagles (9-2) in every phase of the game.
The result earned St. Thomas a second-round game against Coe (11-0), the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion, a 21-14 winner over Monmouth in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Tommies expect to host the game at noon Saturday, Nov. 29.
The win over Northwestern extended St. Thomas' home-field record in the playoffs under Caruso to 15-1, including 12 games in a row. The Tommies have been especially dominant in five opening-round games at home, outscoring opponents 269 to 43, or 53.8 to 18.6 points per game.
The shutout was the first post-season shutout in St. Thomas history and the first of this season, and Caruso was quick to praise his defense. With a 30-0 halftime lead, he used only backup players in the second half.
"I'm very happy with the way the defense is performing," he said, pointing to key stops when Ryan Winter deflected a Northwestern field goal attempt on the opening drive and Chris Pierson intercepted a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter. "When you can pull out your starters at halftime, it gives you an edge for the next game."
St. Thomas picked off two other passes. The first interception, by senior cornerback Michael Alada, was his 10th of the season and tied the school record set by Neal Guggemos in 1983. Linebacker Dylan Andrew got the other interception and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown on top of four points he scored on a pair of PAT runs in the first half.
The Tommies scored their six touchdowns in a variety of ways: on long drives of 12, 12 and 14 plays, on two short drives after Northwestern turnovers and on Andrew's interception return. The scoring margin could have been wider, as Northwestern twice stopped St. Thomas on downs inside the 5 and when a Fenske pass from the 3 on the last play of the first half was incomplete.
Tommies off to fast start
St. Thomas jumped off to a quick start, scoring on its first three possessions.
Northwestern took the opening kickoff and drove 63 yards to the St. Thomas 12 before missing a 29-yard field goal. The Tommies took over and marched 80 yards in 12 plays, with halfback Tucker Trettel running in from the 1 for the touchdown. Andrew ran in the 2-point version for an 8-0 lead.
St. Thomas capitalized on a turnover to set up its next touchdown. Adam Kraft forced a fumble and Bennett Celichowski recovered on the Tommies' 40. Five plays later, quarterback Alex Fenske hit wide receiver Joe Reed for a 25-yard down touchdown pass and Bryan Steinspair kicked the extra point for a 13-0 lead with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
Northwestern went three-and-out on its next possession and the Tommies took over on their 42. Jeremy Molina capped another 12-play drive with a one-yard run on fourth down, and Andrew again ran for a two-point conversion and a 23-0 lead.
Chris Fondakwski blocked a punt on the Eagles' next series and Jack Dummer recovered at their 6. St. Thomas, however, couldn't punch the ball in and Northwestern took over on downs at its 4. Two plays later, Alada got his NCAA-leading 10th interception of the year at the Northwestern 39. The Tommies needed just four plays to score, with Molina diving in from the 1 for a 30-0 lead.
Alada smiled when asked in the post-game news conference if he expected, at the beginning of the year, to get anywhere close to 10 interceptions. "When I wrote down my goals as cornerback," he said, "I didn't write down any interceptions. The main goal that I had was not to give up any touchdown passes."
Caruso pointed out the legacy connection involving two school records for interceptions and season rushing yardage. Neal Guggemos, an All-American defensive back for the Tommies in the mid-1980s, is the father of Nick Guggemos, a sophomore wide receiver. A year ago, Jordan Roberts' 2,092 rushing yards eclipsed the rushing record set in 1990 by Gary Trettel, the father of Tucker Trettel, this year's starting halfback.
Fenske and receiver Nick Waldvogel had productive first halves before sitting out the rest of the game. Fenske was 13 of 19 for 206 yards in the air and has 312 career completions for 4,858 yards, and Waldvogel snared seven passes for 104 yards.
Tommies dominate second half
The game's pace slowed in the second half. The Tommies opened the third quarter with their only three-and-out possession of the game, and it momentarily looked like wide receiver and punter Joe Reed would make up for that when he faked the punt and ran 81 yards for a touchdown. But the play was called back by a penalty, and the Tommies punted.
Six plays later, Andrew picked off an errant Northwestern throw and had a convoy of blockers down the sidelines for a touchdown and a 37-0 lead. "I was in the right place at the right time," he said. "Once I got going the other way, I sure had a ton of purple around me."
Caruso pointed out how Andrew was a star quarterback in high school in Illinois but accepted a different role once he arrived at St. Thomas. Caruso likes it when players like Andrew, who he called "very dynamic and very unselfish," say, "Coach, put me wherever I can help the team."
St. Thomas threatened to score on its next series, but a 13-play drive bogged down at the Northwestern 3. Three possessions later, after the Pierson interception in the end zone, the Tommies marched 80 yards in 14 plays for their final score. It was the Stephen Wagner show for the entire drive, as the freshman halfback from Stillwater carried 11 times for 76 yards and also caught a four-yard pass before scoring on a 10-yard run.
No. 16 Coe, the Tommies' next opponent, is not an unfamiliar foe. St. Thomas defeated Coe 34-7 in 2009 in the second round for the first home playoff win of the Caruso era.
St. John's, the other MIAC team in the playoffs, scored a touchdown on the last play of its game in Collegeville to defeat UW-Platteville 32-31. The Johnnies drove 80 yards in 14 plays in the final 2:20, with running back Dusty Krueger edging into the end zone on fourth down from the 1. They will play at UW-Oshkosh, the No. 4 team in Division III, on Saturday.
• St. Thomas has 526 points on the season, or 47.8 per game, the second most in school history behind last year's 594 (39.6 per game).
• The Tommies are in the Top 10 nationally in nine categories, including second in tackles per loss (112, or 10.2 per game, including nine Saturday), fourth in rushing defense (687, or 62.4 per game, after giving up 36 yards to Northwestern) and eighth in scoring defense (10.9 points per game).
• Northwestern came into the game ranked No. 7 in Division III for fewest points given up, at 11.8 per game. St. Thomas eclipsed that number in the first quarter.
• This was the third St. Thomas win over Northwestern. The Tommies won regular-season games 41-0 in 2008 and 63-14 in 2009 during Caruso's first two years as coach.
• The Tommies have 75 touchdowns this year, scored by 22 different players. For each touchdown, alumni Chip and Mick Connelly of Connelly Family Wealth Management at UBS Inc. contribute $70 to the Student Alumni Mentoring program at St. Thomas. Last year, 14 players scored 106 touchdowns in 15 games.