By DOUG HENNES
St. Thomas romped over Coe 55-6 Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs, and a glance at the statistics left one stumped in figuring out if the Tommies were more dominant with their offense or defense.
You could make a good case for the offense. Third-ranked St. Thomas (12-0) gained 605 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 12-minute span en route to a 41-0 halftime lead, going 5 for 5 in the red zone for the game. Quarterback Adam Fenske threw three touchdowns and ran for one – all in the first half – and the Tommies were one yard short of two 100-yard rushers for the game.
The defense has strong supporters, too. St. Thomas smothered Trevor Heitland, who came into the game as the second-leading rusher in Division III with 1,870 yards, and held him to 43 yards on 24 carries. No. 16 Coe (11-1) was plus-26 on turnovers, but it was the Tommies who picked off three passes in the first half, including senior cornerback Michael Alada's school-record 11th of the season.
The bottom line was a resounding O'Shaughnessy Stadium win for St. Thomas, which moved into the quarterfinals for the sixth time in the last eight seasons. The Tommies expect to host UW-Oshkosh, a 31-14 winner at home over St. John's, in a Dec. 3 rematch of the 2012 Division III semifinal won 28-14 by St. Thomas at home.
"I am really excited about the way we played today," said coach Glenn Caruso, who picked up his 99th win against just 14 losses (.876), and "the manner in which we were able to win, with such energy. We're clicking in all phases right now, and playing as well as I've ever seen on defense."
Ever? "Ever," he repeated, comparing this defense to the 2011 team that lost in the semifinals and last year's national runner-up. "This one is so dynamic. It can get to the quarterback, it can stop the run, and when the ball is in the air . . . we have as good of a shot at it as the other team."
Caruso also pointed to his team's balanced attack on Saturday, with 35 rushes for 263 yards and 35 passes for 342 yards. "We're never going to be a 70-plays-a-game passing offense and never will be a 70-plays-a-game running offense," he said. "We believe in balance – in everything we do."
Slow start for Tommies
Both teams started tentatively, Coe opening with a 3-and-out punt and Tucker Trettel fumbling on his 29 on the third play of St. Thomas' first drive.
But Coe couldn't take advantage of the turnover, and four plays later Dylan Andrew picked off his second pass of the playoffs at the St. Thomas 24 and returned it 52 yards to the Kohawks' 24. Six plays later, Fenske connected with Luke Iverson for a 17-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The teams exchanged punts before the Tommies held Coe on downs at its 42. Both Caruso and Coe coach Tyler Staker defined the stop as a critical early play, as the Kohawks failed to convert on third and 1 and fourth and 1. On the next play, Fenske hit wide receiver Joe Reed with a 42-yard touchdown pass and a 13-0 lead after the PAT run failed.
Two plays later, Alada set a school record with his 11th interception of the season. Last week, he tied the 1983 record set by Neal Guggemos, who went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings, and said the two playoff picks were on similar passes. "It was a fade route," he said, "and he (Coe quarterback Gavin Glenn) just over threw it a little bit."
With the ball at midfield, backup Josh Parks took over at halfback and carried five times for 27 yards, including a four-yard touchdown run for a 20-0 lead with five seconds left in the first quarter.
The Tommies tacked on three more touchdowns by halftime. A third interception, this one by Mark Dowdle at the St. Thomas 17, was followed by another one-play touchdown drive on an 83-yard run by Trettel, who finished with 102 yard on nine carries. Fenske completed his third scoring pass, an 11-yarder to Jackson Hull, and then ran it in from the 10 for a 41-0 lead at half.
The senior quarterback from Marshall, a classic pocket passer with only a handful of rushing yards this year, grinned when asked about his scramble for the touchdown. With no receivers open and looking at a broken-down defense, "I saw a nice opening to the end zone and took it," he said.
Caruso hesitated to say whether the first half was the best he has seen at St. Thomas, pointing to the 49-0 halftime lead over St. John's in 2011. Best playoff first half? "Without a doubt," he said. "How can you go 41-0 against a team (Coe) that is 11-0 and No. 16 in the country?" he asked. "They are a very strong, physical football team."
Ho-hum second half
St. Thomas rested most of its starters in the second half but still outscored Coe 14-6.
Coe struck first, on a 66-yard bomb from Glenn to Seth Williams for its only score. On the next series, Parks ran for a 25-yard touchdown, giving him 99 yards on the day, and backup fullback Bennie Wilson capped the scoring with a one-yard plunge late in the third quarter.
Caruso smiled in disappointment when hearing Parks was one yard short of 100. He values the 1-2 punch he has at halfback between the interchangeable Trettel and Parks, as does All-American offensive tackle Will Hilbert, who was named MIAC's top interior lineman earlier this week.
"We have some serious depth at running back," said Hilbert, after starting his 48th career game. "We just execute our plays no matter who's back there."
Oshkosh will provide a stern third-round test for St. Thomas. The Titans (11-1) led St. John's 17-14 after three quarters but added touchdowns on runs of 72 and 20 yards in the fourth quarter. Oshkosh outgained St. John's 430 to 222 yards, with 332 yards on the ground.
The Titans' only loss was 17-14 at UW-Whitewater, which advanced to the quarterfinals with a 37-9 win over Wittenberg. The St. Thomas-Oshkosh winner will play the Whitewater-John Carroll winner on Dec. 10 for the right to play in the national championship game Dec. 16 in Salem, Va.
"I'm a big fan of Oshkosh," Caruso said. "They're very athletic and strong and fast and dynamic . . . one of the top teams in the country."
• St. Thomas is 17-6 in NCAA playoffs under Caruso, including 16-1 at home, and has won 13 in a row at home. Caruso's teams are 6-0 in second-round games. With 581 points this season (48.4 per game), the Tommies are just 13 shy of the school record set a year ago.
• The Tommies have given up only three touchdowns in the last 22 quarters and came into the game nationally ranked in the top four in five defensive areas: scoring defense (10.9 points), rushing defense (62.5 yards), total defense (208.8 yards), third-down conversion defense (23 percent), and tackles per loss (10.2 per game). Saturday's numbers were close in all of the categories.
• Defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski said his team had a simple mindset on Saturday: Stop Heitland. "We wanted to do it by shutting him down and forcing them to throw," Kuchinski said. "It was just 11 guys running to the ball with really good leverage. We felt good about our numbers in the box and how our movement caused confusion."
• Time of possession and plays on offense may be two of the most misleading statistics in college football. The Tommies held the ball for one minute longer than Coe (30:30 vs. 29:30) and ran only one more play (74-73), but had an 8.2 to 4.5 yard advantage per play.
• Fenske eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark for career passing with 229 yards against Coe and has 26 touchdowns and only four interceptions (6.5 to 1 ratio) this season. Trettel has 922 rushing yards. Reed, who is averaging 36 yards per catch, needs just 39 yards to hit 1,000 for his career.
• St. Thomas had just 15 yards in three penalties on Saturday after averaging 77.6 yards in the first 11 games.