14 points in final 3:46: Late rally lifts St. Thomas

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell, making his first college start, ran 32 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to lead eighth-ranked St. Thomas over the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire 27-24 Saturday, Sept. 1, at Carson Park.

The Tommies, who missed several scoring chances throughout the game, trailed by 11 midway through the final period before their comeback. With 3:46 remaining, O’Connell hit sophomore wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo for a 49-yard touchdown. After an interception by senior safety Tyler Erstad, O’Connell rushed for the touchdown that capped the furious St. Thomas rally.

The Blugolds’ final attempt saw senior quarterback Austin Neu’s fourth-down pass intercepted by sophomore cornerback Sean Hamlin. St. Thomas (1-0) ran out the last minute on the clock to seal the win.

“That right there was St. Thomas football,” coach Glenn Caruso said.“I’m so proud to be the flag bearer of this program.”

Ferrazzo’s touchdown and a two-point conversion pass left St. Thomas trailing 24-21 with 3:46 left.

Tommie fans thought the game was over after a failed onside kick attempt, but Eau Claire did not capitalize.

With the ball, and no St. Thomas timeouts remaining, the Blugolds (0-1) were in control. On first down, Neu attempted a pass to junior tailback Joel Sweeney, but Erstad intercepted the pass.

The next play saw O’Connell rush 32 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown [See video below]. But junior kicker Griffin Snyder whiffed on the extra point, giving the Blugolds a chance to tie with a field goal.

“It was an amazing finish,” Erstad said. “We came out pretty flat, but I knew we were a better finishing team.”

With 2:12 remaining, Eau Claire got the ball back. On fourth down, Neu threw toward the St. Thomas sideline where Hamlin made the interception.

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St. Thomas defeats Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Matt O’Connell’s winning touchdown run.

“After a battle like that, it’s such a great feeling to pull out a win,” Erstad said.

Prior to the last five minutes, the Blugold defense dominated the Tommie offense, with six trips to the red zone accounting for only 13 points. Penalties, two fumbles, two missed field goals and overall sloppy play slowed St. Thomas for the majority of the game.

The opening of the game had fireworks of its own when Tommie senior linebacker Mike Valesano recovered the opening kickoff after Blugold senior cornerback Tyler Janus fumbled.

Four plays later, O’Connell hit junior wide receiver Dan Noehring for a 22-yard touchdown. Noehring easily slipped by the safety and corner.

“I just ran a little in route,” Noehring said. “Matt threw a perfect ball and just like that I was in the end zone.”

The Blugolds then put together a seven-play, 74-yard drive capped off by a pinpoint pass from Neu to senior tight end Austin Goetsch to notch the score at 7-7.

Later in the first quarter, sophomore Joe Poulin punched in from two yards to give the Blugolds a 14-7 advantage.

Two Tommie possessions near the Blugold end zone came up empty. On the first, sophomore running back Aaron Tyrell-Bird fumbled; on the second, Snyder pushed a 33-yard field goal wide right, keeping the score 14-7.

MIAC Weekend Recap

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With 4:38 to go in the second quarter, junior wide receiver Kyle Whitley muffed a punt. Eau Claire senior kicker Josh Albrecht cashed in with a 34-yard field goal, giving his team a 17-7 lead.

The Tommies grabbed a field goal before the half as freshman wide receiver Jack Gilliland raced down the sideline for a 63-yard return to set it up. Snyder chipped in a 29-yard field goal with 17.6 seconds remaining in the half to cut the deficit to 17-10.

The Tommies’ first drive of the second half came up empty as Snyder pushed a 27-yard field goal wide left.

At 8:21 in the third quarter, St. Thomas began their second drive with an O’Connell 23-yard screen pass to junior tight end Matt Allen. The drive later stalled, resulting in a Snyder 33-yard field goal, slicing the score to 17-13.

Neu led the Blugold offense on a 15-play, 75-yard drive capped off by junior tailback Joel Sweeney rumbling into the end zone, giving his team a seemingly comfortable 24-13 lead.

The final five minutes prove to be the difference

O’Connell finished the afternoon 19 of 37 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns.

Caruso called him a “warrior.”

“I’ve never in my life seen a guy that relentless,” Caruso said. “When called upon, he made the play.”

The Blugolds were led by Neu, who finished 20 of 32 for 196 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Eau Claire’s ground game dominated St. Thomas at the line of scrimmage, led by the Sweeney’s 104 yards.

“Give credit to that big back of theirs,” Caruso said.

Noehring believed there is work to be done heading into next week’s home opener against University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

“We’ve got to work on some little things,” Noehring said. “Especially penalties.”

The Tommies were flagged 13 times for 103 yards.

“For our kids to get it done today, in that way,” Caruso said. “That’s amazing what you saw on this field today.”

Ross Schreck can be reached at schr8250@stthomas.edu.