In a must-win game for both teams, St. Thomas welcomed Augsburg College to town Saturday afternoon in a game they had to have if they were going to have a real shot at winning the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). This was going to be a real challenge for the Tommies defense in that they were facing one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference in the Auggies Ayrton Scott.
Scott entered the game second in the conference in total passing yards, but also third in rushing yards. He was going to be an especially difficult challenge for the Tommies defense and their coaching staff to determine how they would control the dynamic QB. “What makes Ayrton so difficult to defend is that he can play the traditional pocket-passer quarterback, but he can also scramble and make plays,” Tommies Coach Glenn Caruso reflected after the game. “That is what makes him so hard to defend, because he can make plays in a lot of ways.”
That was the challenge for the defense. How would they stop one of the most dynamic players in the MIAC? Coach Caruso and his staff developed a scheme to contain the Auggies QB and that plan was brilliantly implemented by their defense.
The Auggies took the opening kickoff and wanted to take the crowd out of the game by getting a quick score. The Tommies defense was not having any of that, however. They shut down the Auggies immediately, forcing them to punt after gaining just four yards.
From their own 44, St. Thomas began a seven-play, 56-yard drive that ended with QB Matt O’Connell scoring on a quarterback keeper from ten yards out to give the Tommies a 7-0 lead. The drive was beautifully engineered by O’Connell and RB Jack Kaiser. O’Connell completed both of his passes for 23 yards, and Kaiser carried the ball on four straight plays at one point, gaining 29 of his own. On the scoring play O’Connell followed his blockers to the left on a sweep, and then refused to go down once the Auggies defense tracked him down at the two. The St. Thomas QB kept his feet moving and crossed the line for the score and the lead.
On the Auggies next possession the Tommies needed a big play to give their offense great field position and keep the heat on. Presto! This defensive wizards got a huge play from Jesse Addo who stuffed RB Jerise Washington behind the line of scrimmage. As Washington was going down Felix Coleman forced a fumble and the offense was in business at the Augsburg 24-yard line.
Their offense could not take advantage, however. Two rushing plays yielded a net gain of zero yards, and O’Connell’s pass play on third and 10 gained just six yards, bringing kicker Paul Graupner on to attempt a 26-yard field goal. Graupner’s kick sailed wide left, and the score remained 7-0.
While the Tommies sideline was fired up, they needed another big stand from their defense. Voila! Four plays later the Auggies were punting and the ball was back in the hands of the St. Thomas offense. From there it was time to turn to RB Nick Waldvogel. Two rushing plays moved the ball to the St. Thomas 32. O’Connell then completed an 11-yard pass to Charlie Dowdle and a 17-yarder to Jack Gilliland to move the ball to the Auggies 40-yard line. Waldvogel then took the ball and ran for 21-yards before being brought down. On the next play he went up the middle and made three great moves to completely fool two defenders, finally moving to his left and into the end zone for the 19-yard score.
The Tommies were well aware that 14 points was not going to be enough to win this contest, and so another big turnover was going to be needed to give them great field position. Presto! On first and 10 Washington rushed for four yards. Clayton Byrd hit the Auggies running back forcing a fumble that was recovered by safety Kyle Coyne. Six plays later the Tommies were in the end zone when Waldvogel scored from two-yards out.
Up 21-0, Coach Caruso rolled the dice and went with an onside kick that caught the Auggies completely off-guard. The ball was recovered by the Tommies and it was time for the Coach to turn back to his bag of tricks. Wide receiver Pete Fitzsimmons took a quick backward pass from O’Connell and then hit Gilliland down the middle for the 38-yard touchdown pass. It was 28-0 and the first quarter had not even ended.
In the Auggies next three possessions the Tommies defense stood tall each time. Augsburg actually lost fourteen total yards during those possessions, and was forced to punt in each case. The Tommies offense could not take advantage on the first two possessions, missing a field goal and throwing an interception, but on the third possession Waldvogel ran over two defenders on his way to a 31-yard touchdown, increasing the lead to 35-0.
Augsburg would finally respond on their next possession, as Scott led the Auggies on an 11-play, 85-yard drive. A five-yard score by Scott put the Auggies on the board with just 28 seconds left in the half.
That little amount of time proved to be just enough time for O’Connell to set his team up for a field goal. The Tommies QB struck quickly, moving the ball 37-yards in five-plays down to the Augsburg 26. Graupner came on for the 43-yarder and drilled it to end the half, sending the two teams to the locker room with St. Thomas leading 38-7.
The Tommies entered the game needing to get a huge game out of their defense and they got that in the first half. The Auggies ran just 30 plays, and 11 of those came on one possession. Otherwise they had 19 plays and 13 total yards on their other six possessions. The Wizards of Defense had conjured up a plan that was dominating the game and giving Scott no opportunity to move the ball.
The second half was like a light switch finally turning on for Augsburg. Both teams punted on their opening drives of the second half, and on the Tommies second possession they moved 69-yards in 12-plays to increase the score to 45-7. Running back Jack Kaiser was the catalyst for much of the drive, carrying the ball five times for 38-yards. O’Connell was also quite impressive, completing all four of his pass attempts, including a 7-yard strike to Cole Kelly for the touchdown. It would be the quarterback’s last pass, as he went 16-26 for 150 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also had a rushing TD.
At that point the Tommies seemed to fall into a malaise where their bench seemed to lose its fervor and the team seemed to fall into a lull. That was just what Scott was looking for as he began his next drive at his own 19. In five-plays he moved the Auggies 81-yards and got his team back on the board again with a deep pass to Joey Sonnenfeld for a 46-yard strike and score.
On the Tommies next possession they were forced to punt, but the ball was dropped giving Augsburg the ball deep in the St. Thomas end. Starting at the 13, Scott misfired on his first three passes, but a face masking call gave the Auggies a fresh set of downs. Scott hit Sonnenfeld for a four-yard score, and Augsburg was back on the board again.
All of a sudden the game had a decidedly different feel to it. While the Tommies were still comfortably in front, the field seemed tilted against them, and they were in desperate need for someone to step up for them and to make a play. Time to conjure up another defensive “spell” from the Tommies cast of Wizards.
Following the touchdown Augsburg lined up to kickoff but went for the onside kick, lining it off of the back of a St. Thomas player, and the Auggies recovered at their own 37. From their Scott moved the ball down the field methodically, reaching the seven of St. Thomas in eight plays. The next two plays yielded three-yards setting up a third and goal at the four. Did someone call for a defensive play?
Scott faded back to pass, but the pocket began to collapse and so he moved to his right to escape the pressure. Tom Laventure read the play perfectly and tracked Scott down for a 12-yard loss. For Laventure it was a play that looked all too familiar to him. The defensive standout recalled a play that was unfolding the exact same way against St. John’s two weeks earlier. “The same thing happened earlier against St. John’s, the quarterback rolled out, and I took too many steps toward the inside and he get out away from me, and so ever since then I have been working on taking one step and then heading straight up the field trying to contain the quarterback to make sure that didn’t happen again. I saw that first step and could see he was going to break outside, so I went with him to ensure that I kept him inside of me. He tried to stiff arm me, but I was eventually able to take him down.”
The outstanding play by Laventure put the Auggies on the ropes. A field goal was not going to do them any good at this point, but they were fourth and goal at the 16. They needed Scott to make another big play, but his pass to the end zone was read perfectly by Coyne who jumped the route for the interception. While Coyne credited his coaching staff for the great play call after the game, the outstanding play by the senior was just what the coaching staff wanted. After the game Coach Caruso referred to Coyne’s play as his “favorite defensive stop of the game,” and it was clearly a brilliant play by the safety.
The play was not only important because the Auggies came away with zero points, but also because it ate six minutes of time off of the clock. The defensive wizards had bent but not broken, and the two plays by Laventure and Coyne breathed new life into the team.
The defense would find themselves right back on the field, as the Auggies got the ball back on the second play of the Tommies drive when Jeremy Molina forced a fumble that was recovered by Joe Reed at the St. Thomas 31. From there Scott moved the Auggies down the field, and on a third and 16 play he hit Sonnenfeld in the end zone for the score. The two-point conversion failed but the Auggies had cut the deficit to 18.
An onside kick attempt failed, putting the ball back in the Tommies hands at their own 39. With 3:03 left in the game, St. Thomas turned to their running game to make sure that Augsburg would not get the ball back. Tanner Bedard took the majority of the carries, rushing three times for 22 yards, and Thomas O’Neil added 22 more on two carries.
While the Auggies made a game of it with three second half scores, it was the incredibly wizardry of the Tommies defense that put Augsburg in a deep hole; a hole they simply could not recover from. After the game Coyne credited his coaches and the team’s execution as the deciding factors early on. “Our coaches devised a great game plan. We know they have one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, and so we had to make sure we didn’t give him a chance to hurt us, and the coaching staff put together a great plan to hold him down early. We were able to execute that plan and that really made the difference.”
Laventure echoed the sentiments. “Our coaches had us really well prepared, and we made sure when we had the chance to make a tackle that we did it. We held onto him (Scott) for dear life to make sure he went down.” The senior linebacker also credited his teams’ sideline for the quick start. “We were fired up and guys were pumping each other up to get the enthusiasm going. You could feel the energy on the sideline, and that was really getting us focused on making big plays.”
While the defense did eventually yield 330 yards, they held Scott to just 181 yards passing and 73 yards on the ground. The scheme that the coaches conjured up was executed to perfection by these defensive wizards and that was the key to victory.
On the offensive side of the ball the Tommies got a huge game out of their two-pronged running attack of Waldvogel and Kaiser that made the difference early. Waldvogel finished with 106 yards on nine carries with three touchdowns and Kaiser had 85 more on 15 carries. Coach Caruso called Waldvogel’s performance “an incredible catalyst for the offense,” and the sophomore back credited the mentality that his coaches have instilled in him. “Coach Wiggins, the running backs coach, tells us you don’t need eight plays to score a touchdown, all you need is one. You just need the confidence that you can score anytime you touch the ball.” Waldvogel clearly took that to heart as he scored on three of the nine carries he had.
While the running game and the defense stole the show, wideout Jack Gilliland had a huge day for the Tommies that enabled the team to make big plays. He had three catches for 84 yards, and his 38-yard touchdown catch on the trick play was one of the biggest moments of the game.
For the Auggies, Scott was held to 254 total yards, but Washington and Sonnefeld had big days. The running back had 19 carries for 90 yards and Sonnenfeld had six catches for 105-yards and three scores.
In the end, it was really the difference in the play of the defenses that gave St. Thomas the victory. The Tommies finished with three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and four pass break-ups. Every time that St. Thomas needed a big play these Wizards of Defense conjured up something that turned momentum back toward the Tommies direction. “There was a time in this game when our team went through a lull, and we needed a big stop. That is exactly what they gave us. Kyle Coyne makes a big interception, which is the way it seemed all game. We needed a play and they came through for us today,” Coach Caruso commented following the game.
With two straight wins in the conference the Tommies head to Hamline University next weekend to play the Pipers. The Auggies will welcome Concordia College to Augsburg College next weekend. That is the MIAC Featured Game of the Week.
By Robert Pannier
Photos Taken by Haley Staffon and are provided courtesy of St. Thomas University