Sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell threw for two touchdowns and ran for another to lead the fourth-ranked St. Thomas football team to a 28-14 victory over Gustavus on a brisk Saturday afternoon at home.
The victory pushed the Tommies’ regular-season win streak to 28 and their home winning streak to nine.
The St. Thomas defense held the conference’s top-ranked rushing attack to only 20 yards. Gustavus senior quarterback Muresuk Mena, who was third in the conference in rushing, finished with minus-25 rushing yards on 25 carries.
Coach Glenn Caruso said he thought the defensive line’s pressure was the key to slowing down the Gusties’ run game, averaging 251 yards a game coming into Saturday.
“When you have a team that’s averaging that many yards on the ground, you’re worrying about them finding a rhythm,” Caruso said.
O’Connell threw first-half touchdowns to junior wide receivers Dan Noehring and Kyle Whitley. Noehring’s 35-yard touchdown catch capped a seven-play, 71-yard drive on the first offensive series of the game. Sophomore wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo ran in for two points on a fake kick, putting the Tommies in front 8-0.
St. Thomas (5-0, 3-0 in the MIAC) has scored on its first possession in all five games this season.
With 42.3 seconds remaining in the half, O’Connell moved the Tommies down the field with short passes. On the sixth play, O’Connell found Whitley in the end zone with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 5 seconds remaining. Junior kicker Griffin Snyder’s extra point gave the Tommies a 15-0 lead at halftime.
The Tommies held the Gusties to 22 rushing yards and 18 passing yards in the first half.
Junior linebacker Tremayne Williams, who finished with a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception, said the defense did a good job of stopping the mobile Mena.
“We were able to contain the quarterback,” Williams said. “That was our main goal all week.”
Junior wide receiver Kyle Whitley catches the last touchdown of the half at O'Shaughnessy Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 6. Whitley's 9-yard touchdown reception gave the Tommies a 15-0 lead at halftime. (Rosie Murphy/TommieMedia)
The Tommie offense couldn’t seem to find its rhythm throughout the game, finishing with three lost fumbles and three interceptions.
“(The game) was not really what we expected,” Ferrazzo said. “The offense kind of sputtered.”
On the Tommies’ first offensive play of the third quarter, O’Connell ran 74 yards for a touchdown, dodging several tacklers. Ferrazzo’s extra-point pass off another fake kick fell incomplete, giving St. Thomas a 21-0 lead.
With 11:30 remaining in the third quarter, Gustavus senior defensive lineman Cory Colvard recovered an O’Connell fumble and ran 53 yards for a touchdown, cutting the St. Thomas lead to 21-7.
Caruso said O’Connell needed to limit turnovers.
“We threw two ridiculously ill-advised passes in the red zone,” Caruso said.
O’Connell was the team’s leading rusher with 144 yards and a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mena threw a pass ithat was tipped to the back of the end zone, where junior wide receiver Phillip Butler caught it, cutting the Gusties deficit to 21-14.
With 6:23 to go and Gustavus (2-3, 1-3) down by seven, junior linebacker Tremayne Williams intercepted a Mena pass, giving St. Thomas possession at the Gustavus 18.
Williams said the interception was a reflection of the whole defense’s performance.
“I had my opportunity, and I took advantage, as did a lot of other people on the defense,” said Williams, who had four solo tackles.
Caruso said Williams performance was a “pretty good statline.”
“He’s a very good football player,” Caruso said. “He’s a focused and mentally tough guy.”
Two plays later, freshman running back Brenton Braddock ran in from 3 yards out, sealing the St. Thomas victory.
The Tommies finished with a season-best 12 sacks.
“The way our defensive pressured was amazing,” Caruso said. “With us to come away with a dozen sacks, that has to be some sort of record. If it isn’t, I want to meet the defensive coordinator that’s got 13.”
Big game looming
With a top-10 clash next weekend against No. 10 Bethel University (5-0, 3-0 MIAC), St. Thomas knows it must fix mistakes.
“I think eliminating turnovers is the big thing,” Ferrazzo said. “We’re fortunate to come out with a win after six turnovers.”
Saturday’s victory moved the Tommies to 41-0 since September 2008 in games when they’ve scored 21 points or more.
The game against the Royals will be on St. Thomas’ homecoming, a match between the only two unbeaten teams remaining in the conference.
Caruso said he is looking forward next Saturday’s battle.
“We love this game, it’s our favorite game of the year,” Caruso said. “We’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile.”
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.