BELTON, Texas — Quarterback Jacques Perra threw a game-sealing pick six with 11:22 left in the fourth quarter Saturday at Crusader Stadium as the Tommies fell 24-10 to Mary Hardin-Baylor and were eliminated in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA playoffs.
The Tommie defense held the Crusaders’ offense scoreless in the third quarter, forcing Mary Hardin-Baylor to rely on its special teams and defense to make big plays. The St. Thomas special teams surrendered a 67-yard punt return at the beginning of the fourth quarter to wide receiver Bryce Wilkerson to put the UMHB at a 17-10 advantage over the Tommies.
Just three plays later, with the momentum in their favor, cornerback Kris Brown intercepted Perra’s pass and returned it to the end zone in the turning point of the game, a 24-10 deficit the Tommies would not overcome.
“I thought our defense was playing so well, and the difference in the game today really was the two scores in the second half– of which the defense was on the field for neither,” coach Glenn Caruso said. “When you have a defense as dominating as ours … to allow quick scores is deathly and to allow two in a two minute time span, well, ends your season.”
Perra and the Tommie offense faced a powerful Crusader defense, a force the Tommies had not seen all year. Mary Hardin-Baylor put constant pressure on Perra and the offensive line, which prevented St. Thomas from finding a consistent rhythm on offense.
“Some of the guys were big, fast, strong and got to me sometimes, so I kind of had a clock ticking in my head, but it was definitely making things difficult,” Perra said.
Perra completed 13 passes on 29 attempts for 190 yards, one touchdown and the interception. He was also sacked seven times during the game.
Coach Caruso said the Tommies’ pass protection was not perfect, but Mary Hardin-Baylor has talented football players who played some of their best football in the quarterfinal matchup.
“They are one of the best defenses that we will ever see next to our defense,” coach Caruso said. “We were able to find a couple of spots open up, but not enough to stay consistent, and for us, some of the pass action game suffered as well because of the inability to consistently move the ball on the ground.”
The Tommie defense dominated, holding Mary Hardin-Baylor to just 143 yards of total offense in the game and an all-time program low of -16 rushing yards, stats that Caruso said would have brought home the win in games earlier this season.
“Frankly, that type of defensive effort should be a win even this time in the playoffs in week 13, but if you go against a team that is as dangerous and explosive and tremendously talented as a Mary Hardin-Baylor and you blink, you’ll find yourself paying for it. And that’s what happened today,” Caruso said.
The Crusaders threatened their first possession of the game, marching all the way to the St. Thomas 17-yard line before cornerback Michael Franzese intercepted Carl Robinson’s pass in the end zone, a crucial stop for the Tommie defense. Franzese recorded two interceptions in the first half, with the second pick setting up the Tommies’ only touchdown of the game, a 26-yard strike from quarterback Jacques Perra to tight end Jackson Hull to tie the game at 7.
The Tommies started the final drive of the half down 10-7, but the offense fought for field position that would set up a field goal attempt. With a second remaining on the clock, kicker Bryan Steinsapir drilled a career long 49-yard field goal to even the game at 10-10 going into halftime.
“It was right before half, and that’s a big deal to use to be able to score in that manner and tie the game up going into halftime,” Caruso said.
Saturday was the first time all season Mary Hardin-Baylor didn’t have the lead going into halftime, an uncomfortable position that Caruso said changed the Crusaders’ mentality in the second half.
“The way that they came out emotionally at halftime you could tell … they aren’t use to being in that position,” coach Caruso said. “So you know that they are going to come out sky high with their best effort.”
For coach Caruso, the pain felt at the end of the season reminds the team of how hard they worked together and their commitment to each other.
“Right now it just hurts, and it should. And that’s OK,” coach Caruso said.
The loss is the Tommies second of the season and first since Sept. 9 against Wisconsin-Stout. This was the first game of the season in which the Tommies were held to only one touchdown.
The Crusaders advance to the semifinal round to play Brockport (NY) Dec. 9.
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