Linebacker Mike Valesano said St. Thomas’ “team defense” was the key to its victory over undefeated Wisconsin-Oshkosh 28-14 in an NCAA semifinal at home Saturday.
“Coming into the game, we knew that Oshkosh was a very talented, dynamic offense,” Valesano said. “Everyone does their assignment, no one tries to be Hercules. That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
The victory advances No. 3 St. Thomas (14-0) to its first national championship game in school history, while ending No. 5 Oshkosh’s (13-1) best season in its 118-year program history.
The “team defense” Valesano spoke of was on full display early and often Saturday in front of a packed O’Shaughnessy Stadium on a frigid December afternoon.
St. Thomas got a jump-start when Oshkosh’s Gagliardi Trophy finalist quarterback Nate Wara’s attempt to pitch the ball to running back Cole Myhra was blown up by cornerback Ryan Deitz. The ball rolled on the ground before defensive end Ayo Idowu scooped it up and ran 25 yards into the end zone for his second defensive score of this postseason, putting the Tommies ahead 7-0 just 14 seconds into the game.
“It was a mirror image of the play that happened last time,” Idowu said, referencing his 86-yard scoop and score Nov. 24 against Elmhurst (Ill.). “In my mind, I’m saying ‘just don’t be slow this time.’”
After the Tommie defense forced a three-and-out on the Titans’ second possession, it was time for the St. Thomas special teams to step in.
Defensive back Kyle Coyne blocked punter Nate Becker’s attempt, allowing Deitz to recover deep inside Titan territory. Six plays later, quarterback Matt O’Connell, who was celebrating his 20th birthday, found tight end Logan Marks unmarked in the end zone for a 6-yard score, putting the Tommies in front 14-0 after 4:12 of play.
St. Thomas’ dominant first quarter wasn’t finished as O’Connell punched in from 1 yard out into the end zone, extending his team’s lead to 21-0. The touchdown run capped off a season-long 16-play drive over 7:57, covering 75 yards.
Coach Glenn Caruso said although “it was great” that the team was ahead early, he was “wary” of Oshkosh, a team that trailed in the second half in two of its three playoff games this postseason.
“It is a big hole (down 21 points), but it’s a hole that they’ve overcome,” Caruso said. “I was terrified because they have such a powerful offense and a confidence that they can come from behind.”
The Oshkosh offense began to find its groove early in the second quarter when Wara connected with wide receiver Cory Wipperfurth for a 77-yard touchdown, pulling the Titans to a 21-7 deficit with 11:34 remaining in the half. The play was the longest given up by the Tommie defense this year.
The momentum swung from one sideline to another as the teams traded turnovers midway through the second quarter. Titan safety Frank Martin first picked off O’Connell and then defensive lineman Riley Dombek recovered a Wara fumble.
The half ended on a O’Connell 45-yard “Hail Mary” completion to wide receiver Charlie Dowdle, but it came up 1 yard short.
The Titans, who averaged 240.2 yards on the ground this season, could only muster 5 rushing yards in the first half.
Idowu said he thought stopping Oshkosh’s run game made a difference in making its offense one-dimensional.
“Coach K (defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski) has a great scheme, and our scout team gives us great game plans every single week,” Idowu said.
Defense dominates second half
The Tommie defense provided another scoring opportunity when safety Tyler Erstad intercepted Wara in the end zone on Oshkosh’s first offensive possession of the second half.
St. Thomas’ offense converted on the turnover, driving 80 yards on 10 plays capped off by O’Connell’s second rushing touchdown of the afternoon. The score gave the Tommies a 28-7 lead with 5:41 left in the third quarter.
But the Titans were not to be denied on their next possession, which ended in Wara’s second touchdown. He rushed in from 1 yard out, slicing the Tommie lead to 28-14.
The final frame proved to be a defensive grudge match, with the Tommies making the first move.
On Oshkosh’s opening possession of the fourth quarter, linebacker Dan Bedor recovered St. Thomas’ third fumble of the game after running back Jake Dostalek put the ball on the turf. The Tommies took over at the Titan 39-yard line.
The Tommies could not convert however, as kicker Paul Graupner’s 38-yard field goal attempt was blocked by a horde of Titans.
Like many times this season, the Tommie defense would have the say in how this game would finish. Oshkosh’s last two possessions finished in three-and-outs.
An 8-yard O’Connell pass to wide receiver Matt Misiewicz gave the Tommies a first down and cemented their place in Stagg Bowl XL. O’Connell finished 14-for-23 for 156 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Running back Brenton Braddock, who finished with 117 rushing yards on the day, credited the offensive line in the team’s ability to run for 191 yards on the day.
“The key was to chip away at them,” Braddock said. “We tired them out. It was a big game for us to show how dominant we can be running the ball.”
On the afternoon, the Tommies held the Titans to their lowest offensive totals in points (14), rushing yards (28 carries for 25 yards) and total yards (291), while forcing Oshkosh to 4-of-14 on third downs. The Titans averaged 480.1 yards of offense coming into the game.
Both teams turned the ball over four times Saturday. The win, Caruso’s 57th at the helm of the Tommies, put him atop the all-time wins list for St. Thomas.
Valesano said while “it’s obviously a big deal” to be the first-ever Tommie team to make the national championship, that’s not the team’s focus.
“That’s not really our mentality,” Valesano said. “We want to keep this family together, keep us together one more week.”
That St. Thomas family travels to Salem, Va. next weekend to battle undefeated Mount Union (14-0) in the national championship game at 6 p.m. Central Standard Time. This is the Purple Raiders’ eighth-straight appearance in the national championship game.
Caruso thinks the 10-time Stagg Bowl champion Purple Raiders are “awesome,” but said he has a different focus for his program.
“We are not trying to be the best Mount Union,” Caruso said. “We are trying to be the best St. Thomas, and I’m OK with that.”
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.