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After a slow start, No. 4 St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso said his players did a “phenomenal” job figuring out No. 17 Elmhurst in the second quarter to rally past the Bluejays 24-17 in a second-round NCAA game Saturday at home.
Saturday’s game marked the first matchup on the gridiron between the two schools and Elmhurst’s second-ever playoff game. The victory was St. Thomas’ 15th consecutive win at home since its 2010 playoff loss to Bethel. It’s the Tommies fourth consecutive trip to the national quarterfinals.
The Tommies’ (12-0) stingy defense stopped the Bluejays (10-2) on fourth down with 27.2 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
The team had another slow start, which resulted in its largest deficit this season: 14 points. St. Thomas trailed 7-0 early last Saturday against St. Norbert (Wis.).
Caruso said he thinks the team had a slow start because it is unfamiliar with the opponent.
“You don’t know that team intimately like you do a team in your own conference,” Caruso said.
The Bluejays posted two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter. Running back Scottie Williams capped off Elmhurst’s first possession with a 6-yard touchdown run. Following Tommie running back Brenton Braddock’s fumble at the St. Thomas 34-yard line, Bluejay quarterback Joe Furco finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown scamper.
“Their offense did a fantastic job,” Caruso said. “They had a great game plan and a great runner to work with.”
Williams came into the game as the nation’s second-leading rusher, needing 72 yards to break the 2,000-yard mark on the season. The Gagliardi Trophy finalist ran 118 yards and a touchdown. Williams, a senior who Caruso called “fantastic,” finished as the Bluejays’ all-time leading rusher.
Late in the first quarter, Braddock bulldozed into the end zone for the team’s first touchdown, cutting St. Thomas’ deficit to 14-7. Braddock finished the game with 100 yards, his third consecutive trip over the century mark.
Like last week, the Tommies found their groove in the second quarter, exploding for 14 points. Against St. Norbert last week, the Tommies scored 27 points in the second frame.
St. Thomas put together its longest play from scrimmage this season when quarterback Matt O’Connell connected with wide receiver Matt Misiewicz for an 88-yard touchdown, tying the score at 14 early in the second quarter.
“It came down to (wide receiver) Dan Ferrazzo getting the safety to bite down on him,” Misiewicz said. “I was wide open after the safety bit.”
O’Connell finished 11-of-14 for 198 yards and also ran for 85 yards. Although Caruso said he thought St. Thomas didn’t pass as much as he would have liked, he thought O’Connell’s ability to run the ball proved vital.
“Matt is one of those quarterbacks that can hurt you with the pass and with his feet,” Caruso said. “He proved that today.”
After the touchdown, Elmhurst looked poised to secure another touchdown midway through the second quarter. On first and goal at the 8-yard line, Furco rolled to his left and attempted to pitch the ball to Williams, who then fumbled the ball.
“I saw the ball on the ground and I picked it up,” defensive end Ayo Idowu said. “God didn’t build me to run 80 yards. I just slowly trotted my way into the end zone.”
The 86-yard fumble return gave the Tommies their first lead at 21-14 heading into halftime, something they would not renounce the rest of the game.
Furco finished 17-of-32 for 211 yards in his final game for Elmhurst.
Caruso said he thought the score on defense was “pivotal.”
“I think the turnover … got them out of their rhythm a little,” Caruso said. “The score was great, but the turnover (was) huge.”
Defensive second half
Both defenses stepped up in the second half. The third quarter went by in a blink, and each team had one full possession, both ending in successful field goals.
The Bluejays’ field goal came after the Tommies received a running into the kicker penalty, which extended their opening drive of the second half. Kicker David Tomis nailed a 27-yard field goal, cutting the Tommie lead to 21-17.
St. Thomas answered back on its opening second half drive as O’Connell orchestrated a 17-play, 60-yard drive spanning 8:31 that ended with kicker Paul Graupner’s 28-yard field goal, giving his team a 24-17 lead heading into the final quarter.
Graupner went 1-for-3 on the afternoon, missing from 42 and 32 yards in the first half.
Both teams battled in the final frame, with the Tommie defense stopping the Bluejays on three crucial fourth downs.
The Tommies finished with 393 yards (195 rushing, 198 passing) and converted its two fourth-down attempts. The Bluejays finished with 391 total yards (180 rushing, 211 passing) while scoring on three of its five attempts in the red zone.
St. Thomas advances to the national quarterfinal round to battle No. 7 Hobart (N.Y.) at 12 p.m. next Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
Caruso, who spent time at Ithaca (N.Y.) as a coach, knows Hobart quite well.
“(They’re) a very, very traditional football team,” Caruso said. “(They have) tremendous athletes and are very confident in their schemes.”
Both teams enter next weekend’s game a perfect 12-0.
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.