St. Thomas Gets All They Can Handle in Win Over Wisconsin-Eau Claire
The Tommies entered the season ranked No. 11 nationally in Division-III football, and early on looked like they were going to run all over Wisconsin-Eau Claire. However, a feverish fourth quarter nearly led to a huge upset as the Tommies held on for the victory and moved to 1-0 on the season.
St. Thomas jumped out to a 15-3 lead at half, and increased the lead to 22-3 early in the third quarter. Neither team had been able to move the ball on their first two drives, but in their third drive the Tommies finally drove the field. St. Thomas’ Kyle Coyne intercepted a Mark Munger pass at the 50-yard line and returned it seven yards to the Blugolds 43-yard liner. There the Tommies turned to their run game. RB Jack Kaiser and QB Matt O’Connell led the drive. Kaiser had two rushes to move the ball to the 31. After a penalty moved the ball back to the 40, O’Connell took the ball on a quarterback keeper and ran 15 yards to make it third and 4. After an offsides penalty gave the Tommies a first down, O’Connell kept the ball again and gained another 15 yards down to the Blugolds 5-yard line. Kaiser then took the ball and ran outside for the touchdown, to give the Tommies the 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter St. Thomas put together a 9-play drive that began at their 29. Again O’Connell and Kaiser led the drive. O’Connell completed two of three passes for 21 yards and also had a designed run of 30 yards that put the ball at the Blugolds’ 15-yard line. Kaiser had five runs on the possession including a 2-yard burst for a touchdown. The Tommies successfully went for two, increasing the lead to 15-0.
UWEC finally got on the board with 2:57 left in the half, when Parker LeMire hit a 30-yard field goal to cut the lead to 15-3. The field goal culminated a 13-play, 62-yard drive that began at their own 25 and lasted over four minutes.
The third quarter looked like it was going to be much of the same as the Tommies took the opening kick-off of the half and moved the ball down the field for the score. Beginning at their own 29-yard line, it was O’Connell and Brenton Braddoc that led the drive this time. Braddoc had four rushes for 18 yards, and O’Connell completed three passes in a row early in drive to three different receivers. Then he went to the ground himself, rushing for 7-yards down to the UWEC 11, and then two players later keeping the ball and scoring the Tommies third touchdown of the game. The point after attempt was good, and it was now 22-3.
With a commanding lead, it looked like it was all over but the post-game handshake, but the Blugolds had other ideas in mind for sure. An offense that had looked stifled all day got a huge break when Jake Weber intercepted an O’Connell pass at the UST 40 and ran it back to the 26 before being tackled. From there the Blugolds turned to their running game, rushing eight times on the 9-play drive, including a 2-yard jaunt by Jake Neis for the touchdown. The score seemed to have awakened the entire UWEC team, and put the defense on notice that it was time to step up and that is what they did.
On the Tommies next possession it looked like they were going to move right back down the field themselves, gaining a first down on a 7-yard run and a 12-yard pass from O’Connell to end the third quarter. Kaiser then burst off-tackle for a 7-yard pick-up that set-up a second and short, but the Blugolds’ defense stiffened and the drive stalled, forcing a punt.
On their next drive, the Tommies moved the ball well, taking the ball at their own 27, and moving it down to the UWEC 28 before the drive stalled. The team attempted a 45-yard field goal, but Paul Graupner missed, giving the Wisconsin team life. They made the most of it.
With only four minutes left in the game, and down by 12 the time for expediency was at hand, and that is what the Bluedogs did. Starting at their own 28, UWEC got into their two-minute offense. After Munger ran for no yards, he hit Korey Jacobson for 13-yards and a first down. UST was called for roughing the passer on the play, moving the ball an additional 15-yards down to the UST 44. Another big penalty, this time a pass interference call, gave the Blugolds a fresh set of downs, and set them up at the 29-yard line. Munger then hit Chris Cummings on a beautifully designed play that went for 23 yards. The tension was mounting, and after the Tommies defense came up big to force a fourth and three, it looked like UWEC was going to see their comeback stymied by a fierce goal-line stand. That is until the Blugolds coaches pulled out a beautifully designed play that sprung Cody Gerver. Munger found him in the end zone for the touchdown, and the visitors were down by 5 with 2:11 to play.
An onside kick was recovered by the Blugolds at their own 41, making for an incredibly dramatic finish. Munger’s first three passes missed their target, setting up a fourth and 10, but then Munger hit Cummings for a 26-yard gain and UWEC was into UST territory at the 33. After an incomplete pass, a false start penalty moved them back five yards, and then Munger was sacked for a six yard loss, setting up a third and 21. Cummings then made a nice catch for 18 yards, but was still three yards short of the first down marker, setting up another fourth down scenario. A quick pass to Cummings for six yards gained the needed yardage for the first down, and set UWEC at the 20-yard line with just under a minute left to go. Munger tried to return to Cummings one more time, but CB Sean Hamlin, who had been picked on the entire drive, made a nice play on the ball for the interception at the 3-yard line, sealing the victory. The comeback had been thwarted.
O’Connell finished the day 15-28 for 183 yards and an interception. He also ran 13 times for 97 yards and a TD. Kaiser pitched in 63 yards on 13 carries and scored twice. Munger was 33-58 for 297 with a TD and 2 INTs for the Blugolds. On defense the Tommies were led by Kyle Coyne, who had 12 tackles and an interception.
The victory was a close one, but the important thing for UST was to gain the victory. After the game Tommies Coach Glenn Caruso seemed happier with the nail-biter. “A close game like this pays much more dividends for us than a game like last year when we had it all going our way.” The Tommies dominated last year’s contest 52-7.
Next week St. Thomas will host Wisconsin-La Crosse in another border war. Game time is 1:10 PM.
By Robert Pannier
Associate Senior Managing Editor
Senior Writer Covering the MIAC