NCAA Division-III Playoffs
No. 11 St. John’s Johnnies (10-1)
No. 3 St. Thomas Tommies (11-0)
How They Got Here: The St. John’s Johnnies finished second in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) with a record of 9-1 in the regular season. Their only loss came at home to St. Thomas when they fell 35-14. Following the loss the Johnnies won their last six games by a combined score of 258-69. The defense held opponents to just three touchdowns in the final three contests of the season.
In Round 1 of the NCAA Division-III playoffs, St. John’s welcomed the University of Dubuque. They had opened the season against the Spartans, downing them 45-9, and the Round 1 match-up was much of the same as QB Nick Martin threw for 4 touchdowns in a 51-7 victory. Martin was 17-26 overall for 257-yards. The Johnnies defense held Dubuque to just 219-yards of total offense.
The St. Thomas Tommies went 10-0 and were crowned MIAC Champions. They dominated every game, with their closest contest being that 21-point victory over St. John’s back in September. The Tommies offense scored at least 51-points in seven of those games, while the defense was equally as impressive, holding opponents to just 81 total points this season. As a reference, St. Thomas scored 80 in their victory over Carleton.
In the first round of the playoffs the Tommies defeated the La Verne Leopards 57-14. St. Thomas led 21-o heading into half. After a touchdown by the Leopards the Tommies took command of the game behind their senior quarterback John Gould. The senior threw for 310-yards and 2 TDs, including a 67-yarder to Charlie Dowdle.
Most people assume that shutting down star running back Sam Sura is the key to defeating the Johnnies. A year ago that may have had some merit, but senior QB Nick Martin is quite possibly the most unsung quarterback in Division-III football. Martin does two things as well as any quarterback in the country. He makes plays when his team needs him to and he doesn’t make mistakes. Martin completed a gaudy 69.8 percent of his passes, had 22 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. Add to it 4 TDs on the ground and it is easy to see why he is a force in his own right.
Sura is an absolute beast with the ball in his hands. He not only has gained 1560-yards on the ground, ranked seventh in the country, but he gets into the end zone, scoring 23 rushing touchdowns, fifth in the nation. At 5-11 and 205 pounds he is a load.
Josh Bungum can do so many things for this team. He can make plays as a runner, pass receiver and return man. He gained 128-yards on the ground this season, but also led the team in catches with 54 for 830-yards. He also adds a 17-yard punt return average and a 34.1 kickoff return average. This young man can do it all and is a real sparkplug for the offense.
On defense this is as solid of a group as one could ask for. The secondary of Garrett Ackerman, Lucas Glomb, Randy Perez and Trevor Warner are as good as it gets, and they cover as well as any group one will find. The linebackers are incredibly active and pursue plays with the best of them. Carter Hanson, Drake Matuska, Reid Bjorklund and Jack Pietruszewski are dynamic playmakers who can all rush the quarterback, break up passes, stuff running backs in the hole, and make a big interception. They will have to be at their best on Saturday for St. John’s to advance.
While many would give Sura a slight edge in this game, Junior Jordan Roberts stands second to none. He leads Division-III in rushing TDs with 25 and his 1514-yards rushing rank him ninth. Roberts has an incredible 6.2 yards per carry average and combines with Tucker Trettel and Jack Kaiser to make the toughest set of backs in Division-III.
Roberts is handling the ground war, so QB John Gould takes care of the plays through the air. This is an incredibly special young man who is now 14-1 since being named the starting quarterback last season. Martin just finds ways to win games and so does Gould. The Tommies signal caller is a natural leader and can make the play no matter the down and distance.
Senior Charlie Dowdle is as complete of a tight end as one could ask for. He has 30-catches for 683-yards, a whopping 22.8 per catch average, as eight of the catches went for touchdowns. Dowdle is an excellent blocker who knows how to get open when Gould is in trouble. If he makes more than four catches in this game it is going to be a long day for the Johnnies.
Outside of sophomore Steve Harrell and senior Tim McClanahan, this is not a group on defense with a lot of big numbers. That is because Coach Glen Caruso has had the advantage of being able to play a lot of roster this season and they have delivered. Harrell is a beast at the linebacker position who uses his instincts to always be around the ball and make plays. Anthony King-Foreman and Jesse Addo are relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback and Jordan Young is so good at covering the opponent’s top receiver that it often looks like he is the intended target.
This defense has not had to be challenged often because the team has had such big leads most of the year, but last week they proved that when the offense is in need of a little assistance they can smother their opponent.
Outlook: These two teams have played each other since 1901, but have never met in the playoffs before. This is one of the most bitter rivalries in Division-III and there is a lot more on the line here than a win. The St. John’s Johnnies taut that this is not the same team that lost to St. Thomas back in September and that may be true, but the Tommies have everything a team needs to win. Call them the New England Patriots of Division-III. Expect Roberts to have a huge day. St. Thomas Tommies win 31-14.
By Robert Pannier