The Northwestern University Eagles travel down Snelling Avenue to take on the No. 3 ranked St. Thomas University Tommies on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs. The two St. Paul based teams have never faced each other in the playoffs before. In fact, this is the Eagles first trip to the Division-III playoffs, after winning the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) title with a 9-1 record. The Tommies were the winners of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) for the second straight season, posting a 10-0 record.
How They Got Here:
St. Thomas advanced all the way to the NCAA Division-III title game last season, and this team looks to repeat the run. The Tommies opened the season by stomping non-conference foes UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout before running the table in the MIAC. The Tommies scored at least 23-points in every game this season, and their closest margin of victory was a three-point win (23-20) over Concordia-Moorhead on October 8. Included in their victories this season was a statement victory over No. 9 St. John’s on September 24, 33-21. St. Thomas has a prolific offense and a very stout defense, making them a real threat to go all the way.
The Northwestern Eagles finished 9-1, winning the UMAC for the first time. Their only loss came against MacMurray on October 8, but they responded by downing perennial conference champion St. Scholastica. That ended a run of five straight seasons that the Saints had won the UMAC. Northwestern beat Augsburg 14-0. As a reference, the Tommies defeated the Auggies 55-7, however, very few UMAC teams have fared well against MIAC opponents. The Eagles shut out their first three opponents of the season, and reached 5-0 before they finally fell. Northwestern would then win their last four games of the season to claim the UMAC title.
St. Thomas: 48.3 PPG, 274.1 Passing/Game, 200.1 Rushing/Game, 474.2 Yards/Game
Northwestern: 22.9 PPG, 199.3 Passing/Game, 125.5 Rushing/Game, 324.8 Yards/Game
St. Thomas: 12.0 PPG, 148.4 Passing/Game, 65.1 Rushing/Game, 213.5 Yards/Game
Northwestern: 11.8 PPG, 200.5 Passing/Game, 124.2 Rushing/Game, 324.7 Yards/Game
Players to Watch
Jordan Roberts was the offensive player of the year in Division-III last season, but suffered an early injury. Sophomore Tucker Trettel took over along with freshman Josh Parks and the two combined for 1,444 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns. They are a powerful 1-2 punch that is making this offense go. Senior Alex Fenske took over at quarterback and had a solid, yet not spectacular season. Fenske passed for 2,289-yards and 22-touchdowns, and only through 4-interceptions, but a 56.6 completion percentage may loom large as the playoffs go along. Nick Waldvogel is one of the most dependable receivers in the country, grabbing 50-catches for 650-yards.
A very dynamic group of linebackers leads this team, led by senior Jesse Addo, junior Steve Harrell, and sophomore Adam Brant. The three are just playmakers who flow with the play as well as any group in the country. Anthony King-Foreman and Micah Hausman are tough to stop of the defensive line, with each recording 4.5-sacks.
The Eagles have an adequate offense, led by quarterback Corban Halbur. He passed for 1,952-yards and 8-touchdowns, but also threw 8-interceptions. He completed 54.3 percent of his passes. BJ Foster rushed for 609-yards and 9-touchdowns, and Cody Carlson made 55-catches for 777-yards and 4-TDs.
Ben Greener is just a stud, recording 110-tackles and 2-sacks. Three other players recorded at least 60-tackles. This is a group that can make plays, and Gideon Burnham (63-tackles, 6-sacks) is another key to their success. This is as deep of a group on defense as you will see in the playoffs.
This is a matchup of two of the top defensive units in the country, as both rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, but the competition that the St. Thomas Tommies have faced is significantly better than what the Northwestern Eagles have endured. The Tommies have the far superior offense, and will likely beat down the Eagles with their ground attack. For Northwestern to pull off the upset of the year they will need to hold down the running game and force Fenske to throw. He hasn’t made a lot of mistakes, but his accuracy is a question mark. That is very unlikely. Look for the Tommies to roll, 59-6.
By Robert Pannier