By DOUG HENNES
MOORHEAD – A suffocating defense and a nearly unstoppable offense have been the keys to success for the St. Thomas football season this year, vaulting them to a No. 6 national ranking and among the nation's statistical leaders in many categories.
The recipe was the same Saturday for the Tommies (8-0, 6-0 MIAC). They again dominated a MIAC rival and defeated their second top-15 ranked opponent on the road in rolling to a 38-14 win over No. 14 Concordia.
They can clinch a tie for their fourth MIAC title in six seasons and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs with a win over Carleton (1-7, 0-6) at home on on Nov. 7.
The team numbers were impressive for St. Thomas on Saturday: advantages of 552-179 in total yards, 29-12 in first downs, 8-0 in sacks and 14-1 in tackles-for-loss, as well as 9 of 15 in third- and fourth-down conversions vs. Concordia's 4 of 14.
The individual numbers were impressive, too:
- Junior halfback Jordan Roberts had a career-high 254 yards from scrimmage, including his sixth straight game rushing for more than 100 yards;
- Nick Waldvogel snagged 10 catches and finished with 118 all-purpose yards;
- fellow wide receiver Jack Gilliland caught four passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns;
- seven players had sacks, led by lineman Ryan Winter's three.
"We always have tough games against Concordia," said Coach Glenn Caruso, whose Tommies rallied for a 35-32 defeat of the Cobbers last year in St. Paul. "This is a big win for us and puts us in the driver's seat to win the conference."
A win over Carleton would boost the Tommies' record to 7-0 in the MIAC. Even if they lose their regular-season finale at Gustavus, the worst they could finish is a tie with St. John's, assuming the Johnnies win their last two games. St. Thomas would get the automatic playoff berth because of its 35-14 win at St. John's in September.
Tommies trail early again
For the second game in a row, St. Thomas found itself trailing 7-0. Concordia took the opening drive and went 77 yards in seven plays, highlighted by Jason Montonye's 57-yard run on the second play from scrimmage. It was longest run allowed by the Tommies this year.
St. Thomas drove to the Concordia 11 but stalled and Paul Graupner missed a 38-yard field goal, the first of three nine- or 10-play possessions that ended with no points. But the Cobbers picked up only two more first downs for the rest of the half and couldn't move the ball on five straight possessions, including three three-and-out drives, an interception and a fumbled punt snap.
The Tommies tied the game at 7-7 on their second drive on Roberts' one-yard run. It was his 17th touchdown of the season and gave him 1,000 yards on the nose for the season, the first St. Thomas runner to exceed 1,000 yards since Brenton Braddock's 1,008 in 2012. Roberts finished the game with 180 yards on the ground and how has 1,105 on the year on 175 rushes (6.3 per rush).
Roberts wasn't done. On St. Thomas' next possession, he caught a short screen pass from quarterback John Gould, headed for the left sideline and scampered 68 yards for the touchdown. Tight end Charlie Dowdle, holding for Graupner on the extra-point kick, took the snap and ran for two points and a 15-7 lead with 10:36 remaining in the first half.
"It was a designed screen," Robert said. "I just tried to stay patient and let the defensive linemen move up the field, and I snuck by them. John threw a perfect ball and I was able to tiptoe down the sidelines and stay in bounds."
Both teams struggled on their next two possessions – a Concordia three-and-out, a Gould interception, a Concordia interception and another Gould interception at the Cobbers' 5-yard line on a fourth-and-10 pass. But the Tommies forced another short punt into the wind and took over the ball at the Concordia 31 with 2:46 remaining in the half.
Four offensive plays later, St. Thomas had a 28-7 lead. The first touchdown came on a 25-yard run by Waldvogel, who broke four tackles en route to the end zone. Concordia could not move the ball and its punter bobbled the snap, which was recovered by Dylan Andrew at the Cobber 17. Gould hit Gilliland on the first play for a touchdown, with 28 seconds left.
Caruso marveled at the 1-2 punch of Roberts and Waldvogel in running the ball, and used a baseball analogy to make his point. Roberts is a punishing runner, "like a fastball," Caruso said, while Waldvogel is more elusive, "like a knuckleball."
Concordia fights back
Concordia tried to battle back in the second half, drawing to 28-14 on the last play of the third quarter on a 35-yard pass from Michael Herzog to Jon Baune. The Cobbers appeared to recover an onside kick, but a player touched the ball before it traveled 10 yards and the Tommies took over at the Concordia 44.
Roberts took over again, picking up 36 yards in seven straight runs before the Tommies settled for a 38-yard Graupner field goal. After another Concordia punt into the wind, Gould hit Gilliland for his second touchdown pass, this one from 52 yards and a 38-14 lead.
Aside from two long plays – the Montonye run and the Baune touchdown reception – the Tommies never let Concordia establish a consistent attack. The Cobbers finished with 21 net rushing yards in 37 runs, after deducting 94 yards from sacks and tackles for loss.
"Nothing unusual," said Winter, the defensive lineman whose three sacks and a fourth tackle for loss cost Concordia 18 yards. "We knew they were going to have to come out and throw the ball, so we kept calling blitzes and were able to get to the quarterback. We got there so quickly I think he was in shock."
"I'm anxious to watch the film and count the knockdowns and the hits on the quarterback," Caruso said. "They take their toll. We got to him all day long."
• The Tommies have outscored opponents 234-28 in the first half; have nine straight games with more than 400 yards of offense; and on Saturday punted for only the third time in the last four games. Only one opponent has gained more than 300 yards.
• If Caruso was displeased about anything, it was penalties. The Tommies drew 13 whistles for 157 yards, compared with Concordia's five penalties for 44 yards. St. Thomas came into the game averaging 66 yards in penalties. "I'm disgusted with that," Caruso said. "We'll clean it up."
• Through their first nine games, the Cobbers outscored opponents 89-28 in the first quarter, including 7-0 over St. Thomas, and scored on their opening drive in seven games. But they lost their first game after scoring on the game's first drive. Their 179 totals yards were less than half their 428-yard average, and they had been averaging 229 rushing yards.