Kicker Paul Graupner’s 32-yard field goal sailed just left of the goal post as time expired to seal the victory for St. John’s over No. 2-ranked St. Thomas 20-18 Saturday at a jam-packed O’Shaughnessy Stadium, ending the Tommies’ 27-game conference winning streak.
In front of a record-breaking crowd of 10,800 people, St. Thomas (2-1, 0-1) struggled to maintain possession of the ball, turning it over five times. Coach Glenn Caruso said even though the Tommies had poor ball security, he credited the Johnnies for making plays.
“It does a couple things – it certainly disrupts the flow; it obviously takes possible points off the board,” Caruso said about the turnovers. “This was one of the worst games I’ve seen us play in a long time, and you know what, this is now the second week in a row that I’m saying that.”
St. John’s (3-0, 1-0) scored twice in the first half to take a 14-11 lead. Quarterback Connor Bruns rushed for a 1-yard touchdown late in the second quarter and running back Sam Sura capitalized on a St. Thomas fumble with a 2-yard touchdown rush shortly before halftime.
The Tommies caught up. After a 10-play, 50-yard drive, fullback Dominic Truoccolo found open space in the flat and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt O’Connell to put the Tommies ahead 18-17 with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter. But following an O’Connell interception, St. John’s kicker Alexi Johnson booted a 34-yard field goal to give the Johnnies a 20-18 lead with 14:52 left, the final points of the game.
Defensive lineman Riley Dombek said the team needs to focus on the little things and keep improving.
“They just played a great game. They weren’t intimidated by us. They came out there and played us well,” Dombek said. “We obviously need to play better, and that’s all I can really say about it.”
St. Thomas was aiming for a four-game winning streak against St. John’s for the first time since 1954-1957. The Tommies are now 33-2 in their last 34 home games. Saturday’s loss also broke an 18-game home win streak since a 12-7 loss to Bethel in the 2010 NCAA playoff quarterfinals.
Bruns completed 21 of 30 passes for 182 yards. St. John’s first-year head coach Gary Fasching said it was a team effort.
“Obviously these games are always important, and no matter who wins, obviously there’s going to be some people really happy and some people really disappointed,” Fasching, who replaced legendary coach John Gagliardi, said. “I’m very proud of our players and our coaching staff; they’ve worked awfully hard to get us where we are right now.”
St. Thomas was driving toward a go-ahead score midway through the fourth quarter, but O’Connell was intercepted on a third-down play at the Johnnie 27 with just over four minutes to play.
“One of the real killers was in the fourth quarter when we had a possible field goal attempt earlier to go up and we threw an interception on third down, instead of throwing the ball away and taking the field goal attempt, so that was difficult,” Caruso said.
The Tommies lost three fumbles in the game. St. John’s wasn’t much better on offense, but the Johnnies were able to take advantage of the Tommies’ mistakes. Fasching said in order to beat a team like St. Thomas, you need to make plays and create some turnovers.
“It’s one of the things we’ve talked about, we have to get better at creating turnovers, we created five last week, I think we had another five today,” Fasching said. “Then you’ve got to make sure those turnovers count into points, and fortunately we were able to get a few of those today.”
O’Connell’s 11-yard rushing touchdown paired with wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo’s two-point conversion were the team’s only touchdown before the half. Graupner nailed a career-long 53-yard field goal to tie the school record as time expired in the half.
Johnson, who hit a game-winning field goal in the Johnnies’ season-opener, hit field goals of 27 and 34 yards. Caruso said St. John’s did a good job of shrinking the game in the third quarter.
“They did a great job getting the ball to number one, and they didn’t even have to be really fancy with him,” Caruso said. “They found different ways to get it to him, and I thought they did a wonderful job.”
St. John’s running back Sam Sura carried the load for the Johnnies, rushing for 88 yards and one touchdown. Fasching said he knew it would be a challenge running the ball against the Tommies.
“The offensive line played a great game and Sam Sura had some great runs,” Fasching said. “So being able to run the football was a big part of our success today.”
St. Thomas has a bye next weekend before welcoming Carleton College for homecoming on Oct. 5. Dombek said his team just needs to have a short memory and get back to work in practice.
“We just gotta get better. We gotta get better every day,” Dombek said. “It starts right away. The slate’s clean, we just have to get right back to it, and that’s all we can do right now.”
Kyle Jonas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.