Gene's Blog: Celebrating the season, from A(ndrew) to Z(waschka)

Photo by Mike Ekern
Photo by Mike Ekern
Here's something that would be easy to forget when assessing the 2017 St. Thomas football season: The Tommie defense came into the fall having to replace six starters, led by four graduated All-Americas (CB Michael Alada, DT Ryan Winter, LB Jesse Addo, DL Anthony King-Foreman).
 
Here's something we shouldn't forget about the 2017 St. Thomas football season: This was an historic one statistically for the Tommie defense among NCAA programs at all levels.
 
UST head coach Glenn Caruso can point to many bright spots. Caruso and Tommie defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski did some of their best work in building this year's chemistry, coaching guys up, and game planning.
 
Here are 17 fast facts to close the book on '17 Tommie football. Warning: This list includes a couple that will make die-hard St. Thomas fans want to pull their hair out (or pull my hair out for reminding them):
 
1) HIGH FIVE: St. Thomas will tie for fifth in the nation with its 11-2 finish. That's the seventh time in the last nine years the Tommies have closed in Division III's top five, and sixth time in the last eight seasons it posted a 10-game win streak.
 
It's also the fifth time in the last seven seasons that it had a season-ending loss to a No. 1- or No. 2-ranked team.
 
2) UNDER 22: The Tommie defense allowed just 21.9 rushing yards per game -- a ridiculous number that no NCAA defense in Division I, II or III can claim in any of the last 16 seasons. For perspective, the best FBS showing in recent years was a 2006 Michigan team at 35 rushing yards a game allowed.
 
Eight of the Toms' 13 opponents were held under 15 net rushing yards. Top-10 ranked St. John's gained one net yard, while five others were minus-1 or fewer.
 
UST allowed 0.7 yards per rushing attempt, ranking with the best seasons ever by any NCAA defense.
  
3) KUCHINSKIED: No. 1-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor continued its bid to repeat as national champions with Saturday's 24-10 home quarterfinal playoff defeat of UST. The Crusaders started football in 1998, and in those 20 seasons (247 all-time games), they had never been held under 150 yards of total offense or under 10 net rushing yards until last Saturday. St. Thomas held MHB to 143 yards on 55 plays, including minus-16 rushing yards on 30 carries.
 
At halftime, Mary Hardin-Baylor was tied 10-10 with just 121 yards of total offense. Before its game-ending three kneel downs for minus three yards, the Crusaders' second-half output on offense consisted of 20 plays for 25 net yards and two first downs... yet they still won with the two fourth-quarter return touchdowns.
 
4) RECORD BOOKS: The minus-16 rushing yards set a St. Thomas postseason single-game record for its defense.
 
5) TOUGH SLEDDIN: St. Thomas defense allowed just six touchdowns in its last eight games, and only three rushing touchdowns in all 13 games.
 
6) SAY WHAT? Saturday was just the second time in Mary Hardin-Baylor's last 119 games (UW-Oshkosh, 2016 Stagg Bowl) that an opponent held the Crusaders to one offensive touchdown.
 
7) SACK HAPPY: The Tommies' six sacks on Saturday were the most ever recorded by a visiting opponent in Crusader Stadium. The six tie for the most the Crusaders have allowed in one game in program history (Wesley had six in a 2010 home playoff win over MHB).
 
8) LAW OF AVERAGES, I: St. Thomas had gone 123 games -- and 357 non-blocked punts -- until giving up a punt return TD to Bryce Wilkerson, a 67-yarder on Saturday. (UST also had a punt blocked and returned for six points by Mount Union in the 28-10 2012 Stagg Bowl loss.) Leon Clark of St. Olaf had a 78-yard punt return TD against the Tommies in Glenn Caruso's second game at St. Thomas in 2008, a six-overtime Tommie loss.
 
9) W EQUALS WOW FACTOR: In the Mary Hardin-Baylor press box Saturday serving as WCCO Radio color analyst for the Tommies was All-America WR-KR Fritz Waldvogel, who recorded 10 career kickoff and punt return TDs from 2008-2011. Waldvogel witnessed Wilkerson's 11th career kick/punt return touchdown. Each of those 11 have come over the last three seasons (five so far in 2017).
 
10) LAW OF AVERAGES, II: St. Thomas quarterbacks had gone 117 games and 3,271 passes without throwing a pick-six until Saturday's fourth-quarter interception and 33-yard touchdown return by MHB's Kris Brown. The last previous one came early in the first quarter against Bethel in 2008, late in Caruso's first season.
 
11) PICKERS: The Tommies intercepted 10 passes in their last four games -- five by junior defensive back Michael Franzese.
 
12) HE'S NO. 16:  In Saturday's loss, Jacques Perra threw his 30th career touchdown pass in 23 games with the Tommies. Perra had at least one touchdown pass in each of the 13 games this fall, and the Tommie offense has thrown at least one in 22 consecutive games.
 
13) SAY IT AINT SO: With Tucker Trettel injured and not playing on Saturday, and senior Jordan Roberts already off the field with a season-ending injury, Glenn Caruso had two players standing on the sidelines Saturday with a combined 77 touchdowns and 5,414 rushing/receiving yards on their three-year St. Thomas careers.
 
14) SENIORS: The Tommies will say goodbye to 30 seniors, a group that built a 45-7 record in the last four years with one Stagg Bowl appearance.
 
15) MILESTONE NEAR: St. Thomas has played 998 varsity football games since its inaugural season of 1903 -- including 31 in the postseason (20-10-1 record, 19-8 under Caruso). The Toms will play game No. 1,000 early next season. Only the Minnesota Gophers have played more college football games among all Minnesota institutions.
 
16) 2018?: The Tommies will return seven of 11 starters on offense, seven of 11 starters on defense, plus a punter. St. Thomas will play road games at St. John's, Concordia, Bethel and Gustavus next conference season. UST will look to extend its win streak over MIAC opponents, currently at 28.
 
17) PREDICTIONS: A, St. Thomas likely will finish either 4, 5 or 6 in the final top-25 poll released after the Stagg Bowl; B, due to modest individual stats and exceptional teamwork, the Tommies likely will have the fewest number of All-Americas among the top-10 ranked teams. Score one for the team.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu