Following a sluggish offensive first quarter, running back Brenton Braddock’s three second quarter touchdowns set the tone for the St. Thomas football team’s 48-17 first round NCAA tournament victory over St. Norbert (Wis.) Saturday at home.
Neither team could muster any points in the opening quarter. The Green Knights moved the ball well on their opening drive before safety Tyler Erstad took down quarterback James Tringali for the first Tommie sack. St. Norbert defensive back Austin Arts intercepted quarterback Matt O’Connell in the end zone on St. Thomas’ second drive.
“Some of (first quarter struggles) could have been because of rust,” coach Glenn Caruso said. “Whatever happens early, we do adjust and we do get better.”
It may have been rust; it may have been nerves. After all, St. Thomas started a sophomore quarterback, three freshmen wide receivers, two freshmen running backs and two freshmen offensive linemen.
“(The freshmen) were all over the place today,” Caruso said. “We’ve had an enormous amount of injuries and guys have stepped up and stepped in and you saw that today.”
In the second quarter, the Tommie offense came alive.
Just 39 seconds in, Braddock punched in from 4 yards out, giving St. Thomas a 7-0 lead. Five minutes later, O’Connell found tight end Logan Marks in the end zone, extending the lead to 13-0 after a failed two-point conversion.
With five minutes left in the half, Braddock bounced in from 1 yard out for a 20-0 lead. If three touchdowns in a quarter weren’t enough, the Tommies did what they always seem to do – score within the last two minutes of the half. A Braddock 5-yard touchdown scamper left St. Thomas in front 27-0 heading into the break.
“I was a little surprised,” Caruso said. “I had no idea we had scored 27 points in the second quarter alone.”
St. Thomas held St. Norbert, a team that averages 320 yards per game, to just 67 yards in the first half. The Tommies also sacked Tringali three times, recovered a fumble and intercepted the sophomore once in the first half alone.
Defensive tackle Ayo Idowu said he thought the defense’s simple adjustment after the Green Knights’ first drive made all the difference.
“Stop the run,” Idowu said. “They were getting too many yards on the run; coach said to stop them and we did that.”
Tommies continue strong play in second half
The St. Thomas offense picked up exactly where it left off in the third quarter, finishing the opening drive with O’Connell’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon; this time, to tight end Matt Allen. The Tommies’ lead swelled to 34-0.
O’Connell credited the St. Norbert defense for a strong game plan.
“They brought pressure today,” O’Connell said. “We were kind of expecting it, but it was different from what they usually come out and do.”
O’Connell finished 15 for 25 for 197 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
The Green Knight offense finally broke through when Tringali, who finished 15 for 32 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, found wide receiver Brian Fliess for a 5-yard touchdown pass, putting the score at 34-7 late in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, kicker Randy Hill nailed a 34-yard field goal, leaving the score 34-10.
With energy beginning to switch sidelines, St. Thomas took over first and 10 at its own 18-yard line. Braddock swung the momentum squarely back for the Tommies galloping, untouched, 82 yards for his fourth touchdown of the afternoon. The touchdown put St. Thomas up 41-10.
“I was looking up at the jumbotron to make sure no one was behind me,” Braddock said.
The Green Knights added a Tringali 80-yard touchdown pass to running back Austin Williams before Tommie backup quarterback Kyler Anderson, who substituted in for O’Connell at the beginning of the fourth quarter, eluded two tacklers on his way into the end zone from 9 yards out. The touchdown cemented the 48-17 St. Thomas win.
Caruso said he was “happy” with his defense’s performance this afternoon.
“The biggest stat that stands out … is (holding St. Norbert to) one of 13 on third downs,” Caruso said. “To be able to hold them to 8 percent (on third downs) … is phenomenal.”
After the first quarter, the Tommie offense found its groove. On six of St. Thomas’ seven scoring drives, the Tommies had drives of 10, 11, 8, 8, 11, and eight plays amassing over 36 minutes of possession on the game. St. Thomas also finished with 295 yards rushing, the eighth time the team has surpassed 200 yards rushing in a game.
The Tommie defense held the Green Knights to 228 yards of offense with only 9 yards on the ground.
With the Thanksgiving holiday in midweek, Caruso said preparation for next Saturday’s game against Elmhurst (Ill.), who won its first-ever playoff game 27-24 over Coe (Iowa) Saturday, will be no different.
“We’ll practice Tuesday, Wednesday (and) Thursday,” Caruso said. “The only thing that’s different is that we have a big turkey dinner as a team after practice Thursday.”
“We’ve earned that right to spend this time together; that’s pretty neat.”
St. Thomas battles Elmhurst (10-1) at 12 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24 at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.