All season long the defense of St. John’s has proven that they can play any kind of football an opponent wants to throw at them. A triple-option attack. Smash mouth power backs. Aerial shows. It doesn’t matter; they simply deliver. Saturday was no execption as the St. Scholastica Saints came to Collegeville, MN looking to prove that they had an attack that the Johnnies could not handle. They were wrong.
The Saints moved the ball 11-plays on their opening drive, looking like they were going to score and take an early lead. Then a miscommunication between Saints QB Tyler Harper and his receiver left Johnnies defensive back Andrew Norri in perfect position to intercept Harper’s pass. From there it all went downhill for the Saints.
St. Scholastica’s defense responded to the interception by forcing a turnover on downs. Nick Martin’s pass on fourth and 3 fell incomplete as he was hit while he threw. That gave the Saints back the ball at their 22-yard line.
On their next drive, CSS gained just three yards on the first two plays, setting up a third and 7. Harper went back to pass, but the Johnnies secondary was blanketing his receivers, giving him no place to throw. That gave just enough time for senior defensive lineman Ben Rossi to track down the QB and drop him for a 6-yard loss. The Saints were forced to punt.
Now it was time for running back Sam Sura to show why he is leading the country in rushing. The Johnnies running back carried the ball on the first three plays, gaining 15-yards and another first down. Two plays later Martin threw a little checkdown pass out to Sura and he followed his blockers for 18-yards and another St. John’s first down. On the first play of the second quarter Sura took the ball on a sweep and went into the end zone virtually untouched from 12-yards out to give the Johnnies a 7-0 lead.
Back to defense the team went, and it wasn’t long before the Johnnies offense had the ball in their hands again. Harper completed a 15-yard pass to Andrew Smith to make it first down at midfield, but on the next play cornerback Lucas Glomb read the pass perfectly, picking it off and racing 24-yards before finally being dropped at the Saints 48. Pick-2.
The score remained 7-0 as both teams’ defenses continued to make the punters the key weapon of the second quarter. Johnnies punter Griffin Toomey pinned the Saints inside their 20-yard line twice, and Saints punter Jason Senger had two punts for 95-yards.
The big play in a series of six-possessions where neither team scored was made by Trevor Warner. He made a perfect play on a Harper pass, intercepting it and returning it 5-yards. Pick-3.
The Johnnies began their last possession of the half from the CSS 47. Sura had been held in check since the touchdown, but not on this drive. The back carried the ball six times for 21-yards and caught a pass for four more. On first and goal from the 3-yard line, he went up the middle and drove the pile forward before scoring to make it 14-0 with 23 seconds left in the half.
A squib kick gave the Saints the ball at their own 39. Harper completed a quick pass to Mitch O’Neil for 21-yards to the Johnnies 40. Three plays later Harper threw deep on the Hail Mary, but Warner was Johnny on the spot, or should I say Johnnies on the spot, to make his second interception of the half. Pick-4.
The Johnnies were controlling the line of scrimmage and were forcing the Saints into making mistakes. CSS had just 90-yards on offense, and Harper was finding no room to throw. The QB was just 7-18 passing in the first half for 63 yards and four interceptions.
Meanwhile, Sura was just methodically going about his business, rushing 21 times for 107 yards and two scores. He was moving the chains and with his defense giving the Johnnies offense great field position, St. John’s were starting to roll.
The second half began with the ball in the hands of the St. John’s offense. While Sura was dominating the first half on the ground, the second half was going to be a chance for Martin to shine. Shine is what the junior did.
It looked like their first drive was going to be stymied when on third and 8 Martin went back to pass and was forced to scramble. Two Saints defenders had a chance to tackle him short of the first down marker, but Martin made great moves to make them miss, and 16-yards later he had the first down. On the next play he was scrambling again, and, running to his left, made a spectacular back-handed flip pass to Zach Sundy for 4-yards that avoided the sack. Three plays later Martin found an open Sundy for a 9-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
If St. Scholastica was going to get back into the game they needed a big play, but it was St. John’s who were to get the big play. On the fourth play of the possession, Harper was scrambling to buy time for an open receiver and fired the ball up, but linebacker Andrew Rossi caught the ball instead. Pick-5.
On the Saints next possession Harper was looking down the middle for a big gain, but this time safety Andrew Norri read the play perfectly, and returned it 23-yards to the Saints 9. Pick-6. Three plays later Sura scored from 1-yard out and it was 28-0.
The half had been a nightmare for the Saints QB, and it was only going to get worse. Harper attempted to throw a little checkdown pass on the first play of the next drive, but the ball was tipped and intercepted by Reid Bjorklund. Pick-7.
From the St. Scholastica 38-yard line St. John’s moved the ball four yards on the first two plays, setting up a third and 6. Martin faded back to pass and went down the seam to find Rob Voshell who had a step on his defender. Voshell made a spectacular diving catch for the score and a 35-0 lead. Three second half interceptions had resulted in 14 points.
The next possession saw St. Scholastica finally move the ball for the first time in the second half. Seven plays into the drive they were into Johnnies territory for the first time since the second quarter. On third and 3 it looked like a perfect play was set up, but defensive lineman Blake Bellefeuille intercepted the ball and ended the drive. Pick-8.
With 4:08 left in the game the Saints got on the scoreboard. Freshman tailback Preston Robinson capped off a 14-play, 96-yard drive with a 33-yard run down the sideline for the score. That would be the last scoring of the game, which would end 35-7.
A look at the stats and it would appear that this was a fairly close game. The Saints actually had more first downs (19-16) and were just 31-yards short of the Johnnies total (282-313). Harper finished with 146 yards passing to Martin’s 128, and Robinson, Harper and Chris Gassert combined for 129 yards rushing to Sura’s 147. The big difference was the turnovers.
Following the game the secondary gave a lot of credit to the coaches and the game plan that was created. “Turnovers are always an emphasis for our defense,” explained Warner. “We knew we were going to be tested as a secondary, and so we had to go out and take control and make plays. Fortunately we were able to do that today.”
Glomb agrees. “We watched a lot of film this week, and we saw a lot of route combinations that we knew we could make some plays on today, and that came together for us.”
As Warner puts it, “Bend but don’t break” has been the mentality of this team all season. “We will let you have 500-yards, but we will keep you from scoring. It’s the score that matters to us, and when teams cross our 50-yard line it’s time for us to step up.”
The junior could not have called it more accurately. Of the first four drives that the Saints had where they reached the 50-yard line or inside Johnnies territory, all ended in interceptions. An amazing show. Safety Randy Perez has an explanation. “It’s the mentality of the team. We refuse to give in, and we play hard for each other. We know any guy on this team can make plays, and we count on that happening.”
With a first round victory, the St. John’s Johnnies will head south next weekend to face Wartburg, a 37-31 winner over St. Thomas. This should be an incredible battle against a Knights’ team that can move the ball and create turnovers of their own. Look for a preview of this game on Wednesday.
Personal Note: I wanted to send my deepest apologies to Trevor Warner and Randy Perez. Yesterday I called you by the wrong first names, and I wanted to apologize to you for that. It is part of being old and being in the presence of greatness as I was yesterday. No disrespect intended at all. Again I am very sorry.
By Robert Pannier