A strong defensive performance led by junior linebacker Steve Dejewski’s 49-yard interception return for a touchdown pushed No. 4 St. Thomas past No. 9 Bethel 37-0 on a soggy Saturday afternoon at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
The victory gives the Tommies (6-0, 4-0) sole possession of first place in the MIAC. Bethel’s defense had allowed only 11 points a game coming in, best in the conference, but it seemed porous especially in the first half.
Or maybe St. Thomas was just “very dominating,” as Coach Glenn Caruso said.
“The most impressive thing about this win … it’s against a tremendous football team,” Caruso said. “That’s the No. 7 ranked team in the country.”
Bethel (5-1, 3-1) is ranked No. 7 in the American Football Coaches Association poll, ninth by D3football.com.
After the Tommies went three-and-out on their first possession, senior cornerback Ryan Dietz recovered a muffed punt at the Bethel 14-yard line. Three plays later, sophomore running back Aaron Terrell-Byrd ran in from 1 yard, giving the Tommies a 7-0 lead.
Because the ball never officially changed hands, the Tommies kept their streak alive of scoring on their first possession (6).
On the Tommies’ next possession, sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell ran 15 yards into the end zone but fumbled crossing the goal line. Junior wide receiver Dan Noehring jumped on the ball, extending the lead to 14-0.
O’Connell led the St. Thomas rushing attack for the third time in four weeks.
“It’s just take what the defense gives you,” O’Connell said. “A lot of times I had to pull the pass down and rush.”
Midway through the second quarter, a 14-play, 35-yard drive ended with Griffin Snyder’s field goal good from 32 yards, extending the lead to 17-0.
With 8.8 seconds remaining in the first half, O’Connell found sophomore tight end Cole Kelly in the right front corner of the end zone, giving St. Thomas a 24-0 lead heading into halftime.
The St. Thomas defense came out determined in the first half, holding the Royals to 19 yards on offense (11 pass, 8 rush). Bethel’s five possessions ended in five 3-and-outs. The Tommies dominated time of possession 22:24 to 7:26 in the first half.
Caruso said the work done by his defensive line came from solid preparation by the players and defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski.
“Coach K put the defensive front where they can make plays,” Caruso said. “Our guys are pretty tough physically and mentally.”
More of the same in second half
With 11:21 remaining in the third quarter, Bethel sophomore quarterback Erik Peterson completed a 6-yard pass to senior wide receiver Jay Hilbrands for a Royal first down, their first of the game.
St. Thomas’ strong defense carried over to the special teams. Junior linebacker Harry Pitera partially blocked a punt from Bethel freshman Phillip Peterson midway through the third quarter.
After a scoreless third quarter, sophomore wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo faked a field goal and ran to the 7-yard line, securing a first down early in the fourth. Three plays later, freshman running back Brenton Braddock lunged into the end zone from one yard out, giving St. Thomas a 31-0 lead with 8:50 remaining.
With 6:31 left, sophomore linebacker Cavan Metzler crushed Peterson as he went back to pass, allowing the ball to flutter aimlessly in the air. Dejewski intercepted and returned the ball for a touchdown, cementing the Tommie victory.
It was Dejewski’s first touchdown since high school.
“Cavan Metzler made a great hit on the quarterback,” Dejewski said. “I was able to be in a good position and made the play.”
Dejewski said the Tommie defense prides itself on “effort and attitude.”
“They are the two most important things you can control,” Dejewski said. “We came with a great amount of both today.”
St. Thomas finished the game with 345 yards of offense compared with Bethel’s 163 yards. It was Bethel’s lowest total yards this season.
Caruso said he feels “pretty good” that St. Thomas controls the MIAC lead.
“We’ve been here before for the last three years,” Caruso said. “It only means your target gets bigger.”
The victory was the Tommies’ 26th in a row at home, and it avenged the last home loss, which came at the hands of the Royals in the 2010 NCAA playoffs.
Although visibly pleased with the performance, Caruso acknowledged the team must keep its focus week to week.
“The teams that are still out there that we have to play in the next four weeks are very good football teams,” Caruso said.
Noehring left the game in the middle of the second quarter with an undisclosed knee injury. Noehring leads Tommie wide receivers with four touchdowns.
St. Thomas travels to crosstown foe Hamline next Saturday, Oct. 20.
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.