Matt O’Connell Lights It Up in St. Thomas Tommies 62-24 Win
Make no mistake – St. Thomas Tommies Coach Glenn Caruso has built one of the most dominant teams in all of Division-III football. Don’t believe it? Just ask the Hamline University Pipers. The Pipers left the first quarter of Saturday’s game trailing by seven, only to watch 27 unanswered points get put up against them. It was the second straight week the Tommies have used an early quarter outburst to distance themselves from an opponent following last week’s 28-point first quarter against Augsburg.
The first quarter was marked by outstanding offense and a couple of mistakes. Out of eight combined possessions in the first frame, five resulted in touchdowns, two ended in turnovers (one by each team) and there was a punt. It was the kind of back-and-forth action that makes for a very exciting start, but was one that clearly favored the more potent Tommies team.
The contest marked a threshold performance for Tommies quarterback Matt O’Connell. In a conference filled with dynamic play-makers at the quarterback position, including Gusties signal-caller Mitch Hendricks, Augsburg’s dynamic QB Ayrton Scott, and reigning conference MVP Erik Peterson, O’Connell has found his name out of the conversation as one of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s (MIAC) leading men, but this day he established that he can put up big numbers, especially when they were needed early.
The Tommies needed just four-plays and 51 seconds to move 72-yards on their first drive for the score, with the St. Thomas QB leading the way. O’Connell completed just one of his two passes on the drive, but a 56-yard strike to Pete Fitzsimmons put the ball at the Hamline five. Nick Waldvogel scored on the next play and the Tommies were up 7-0.
The Pipers began to move the ball on their first possession of the game, but Rutger Heffelfinger recovered a fumble at the St. Thomas 39, and after returning it to the 44, his offense was back in business. It didn’t take long for the Tommies to capitalize as O’Connell and his offense quickly struck. The QB completed two of three passes, including a nine-yarder and a 42-yarder to Charlie Dowdle to quickly move the ball to the Hamline five again. Two plays later Jack Kaiser blasted his way into the end zone and it was 14-0. The five-play drive took just 1:40 off of the clock, and with barely five minutes gone in the game it was looking like the Tommies were going to blow Hamline out.
After both teams were forced to punt on their next drives, the Pipers would get on the board following an interception of an O’Connell pass by Jack Swanberg, who returned the ball 40-yards to the St. Thomas eight-yard line. Three plays later QB Tim Bona completed the touchdown pass to Ray Culp to make the score 14-7.
St. Thomas responded immediately. Jordan Mills received the kickoff and found a seam before finally being tackled 49-yards later at the Hamline 41. After a five-yard gain by Waldvogel, O’Connell hit a streaking Dowdle again, this time for the 36-yard touchdown that restored the lead to 14.
Hamline showed they can respond as wel with a six-play, 76-yard drive that saw Bona complete three of four pass attempts, including a 51-yard pass to Naji El-Araby that put the ball at the Tommies 25. Bona’s completion to Nick Kampa gave the Pipers a first and goal at the St. Thomas seven, and Austin Duncan scored on the next play to reduce the deficit back to seven. There was still 1:51 left in the first quarter and five touchdowns had been scored already.
The Tommies had every intention of maintaining their lead, and O’Connell led them on a 12-play, 67-yard drive that resulted in a five-yard Waldvogel rush for his second touchdown of the game. The Tommies QB dominated the drive, completing six of seven passes for 56 yards, and rushing three times for 14 more.
The Tommies defense held the Pipers on their next possession, when safety Kyle Coyne sacked Bona on a fourth and one play that gave St. Thomas the ball at the Hamline 35-yard line. Seven plays later Dom Truoccolo scored from one-yard out and the lead was now 21 points.
The Tommies defense was fired up at that point, and they forced a punt after three plays on the Pipers next drive. With the ball back in the offense’s hands, Waldvogel and Brenton Braddoc moved the ball on the ground, interspersed with two O’Connell pass completions, that moved the ball to the Hamline 14. From there O’Connell kept the ball on a quarterback keeper and scored to increase the lead to 27.
The Pipers clearly needed a big play if they were going to get back into this game, but it was Coyne who was ready to be the star on Hamline’s next drive. On the third play of the drive, Bona’s pass was intercepted by the safety at the 28-yard line and he went all the way for the touchdown. For Coyne it was his third interception of the season, and the second game in a row that he has come up with a pick.
The half ended with the Tommies leading 48-14, and with the big plays that their defense was making as well as the hot start that O’Connell was off to, this was not going to be the day for the dramatic Hamline comeback. The Tommies were in complete control, and they were going to stay that way.
In the third quarter both teams mounted touchdown drives. Hamline’s second drive of the half was a five-play, 65-yard drive that ended when Bona completed a seven-yard strike to Hoyfal Adam for the score. A 26-yard run by Duncan to start the drive and a 27-yard pass to Kampa were the keys to the possession.
The Tommies responded immediately on their next possession. The three-play, 58-yard drive resulted in a score when O’Connell had his third touchdown pass of greater than 40-yards when he found Fitzsimmons again, this time for a 43-yard touchdown strike to restore the 34 point lead.
In the fourth quarter the Pipers got a 20-yard field goal from Forrest Coughlin, but once again the Tommies immediately responded to the score with a score of their own. Braddoc was the star of the drive, as he carried the ball nine times, including seven times in a row at one point for 59-yards. Jeremy Molina scored from two yards out to finish the scoring at 62-24.
O’Connell finished 16-24 for 305 yards and two TDs. He also had a rushing touchdown. Braddoc had 102 yards on the ground and Waldvogel had 67 more and two scores. Both Dowdle (117) and Fitzsimmons (112) had 100-plus yards receiving and each had a touchdown catch. In total the Tommies put 525 yards of total offense on the board, including 204 on the ground.
Bona had an outstanding day as well in a losing effort, going 26-40 for 345 yards and two touchdowns. Duncan had 102 yards on 22 carries, and Kampa led the team with 94 yards receiving on six catches.
The victory was a huge one, as the Tommies head into the stretch run with three of their four games against top conference opponents. Next week St. Thomas goes on the road to face the MIAC leading Bethel Royals in the MIAC Featured Game of the Week at the Minor League Sports Report. Hamline goes on the road to face the 5-1 Concordia Cobbers.
By Robert Pannier