Junior Matt Evans runs through a tackling drill during practice this week as St. Thomas gears up for its home game Saturday against St. Olaf. (Josh Kleven/TommieMedia)
It was a fall Saturday afternoon in Northfield, Minn. Two college football teams clashed repeatedly, neither budging an inch, ending regulation in a tie. A Division-III record six overtimes later, the host team, St.Olaf, celebrated a victory over visiting St.Thomas.
A year later, the loss still stings. “It was a really tough loss to swallow,” senior tight end Jake Friederichs said.
This Saturday, the Tommies have a chance for redemption in the MIAC season opener against the Oles (2-0).
“This game is very important for us,” senior wide receiver Tony Margarit said. “St.Olaf is one of our biggest rivals and a victory will be a great way to start the MIAC season.”
Margarit had to watch the heartbreaking loss from the sideline last season after tearing a hamstring in camp. After being a significant contributor for the Tommies from 2005-2007, Margarit will play in his first conference game since the 2007 season.
Special teams cost the Tommies in last year’s loss. Four overtime field goal attempts were unsuccessful in addition to the Oles’ returning a punt for a touchdown during regulation play. St. Thomas’ run game also sputtered, rushing for only 49 yards. The Tommie defense recorded five sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, both from then-junior Brady Ervin. Despite the big plays, the Oles managed nearly 400 yards of total offense and came away with the win.
Senior running back Coty Watkins was a major part of the Oles’ success, rushing for 137 yards and 41 receiving yards while scoring two touchdowns. Watkins graduated last spring, but the Oles’ return senior quarterback John Haberman, along with his favorite receiver, junior Antonio Jennings. St. Olaf also has four starters back on the offensive line in addition to senior tight end Mike Shimshock.
Sophomore halfback Leon Clark, and two-way player senior Carson Jones, who intercepted Tommie quarterback David Sauer last season, have also stepped up for the Ole offense.
In addition to an experienced offense, the Oles’ return ten defensive starters, including senior All-MIAC linebacker Adam Concannon.
“Adam is definitely one of the top linebackers we will face this year,” Margarit said.
The wealth of experience returning for the Oles has carried them to overwhelming victories in non-conference matchups this season against Luther College and Pacific Lutheran, outscoring opponents 79-20. Haberman has completed over 64 percent of his passes for 325 yards and 7 touchdowns, while Clark is averaging more than seven yards per catch with two touchdowns. Jones has 10 catches for 223 yards and five touchdowns as the Oles have gained more than 450 yards in each game.
St. Olaf has excelled on defense as well, holding opponents to under 160 yards per game and recording six sacks and six turnovers.
Last season wasn’t the only recent defeat the Oles have given the Tommies. St. Olaf has won every meeting since 2004, and after a 53-27 loss in 2005, Friederichs has no love for the Oles.
“After they ran up the score that game, I’ve never liked those guys,” he said.
Following a four-point loss in 2006, the Tommies were beaten soundly 54-28 by a nationally ranked Olaf team in 2007.
So what about this season? The Tommies watched last year’s game tape over the weekend, and both Margarit and Friederichs expressed their confidence in the Tommie’s improvement and development. In coach Glenn Caruso’s first MIAC conference game last year, the team struggled to find continuity, something Margarit believes is in the past.
“This being our second year in Caruso’s system, we know our productivity is miles ahead of what it was last year,” he said.
After installing sophomore Colin Tobin and junior Ben Wartman at running back midseason last year, the Tommies saw a drastic improvement. Sophomore quarterback Greg Morse has also brought a spark to the offense this season, and with 18 returning starters and a year under Caruso, the Tommies are currently ranked No. 18 nationally. In the MIAC preseason poll, the Tommies are slotted second, while the Oles’ come in at fifth.
Danny Grimmer can be reached at email@example.com