St. Thomas Tommies Look to Snap Bethel Royals Win Streak
The Saturday Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Featured Game of the Week at the Minor League Sports Report will pit No. 11 Bethel University against No. 19 St. Thomas University in a battle of conference opponents that will have a huge impact on the MIAC title. The Royals enter the game 5-1, with a 4-0 in-conference record, while the Tommies enter with an identical record, but are 3-1 in the MIAC. This is a near must-win for St. Thomas, while the Royals seek to continue a conference winning streak that began nearly two full seasons ago.
This is one of those games that players, coaches and fans alike mark on their calendar each year because of how important it is in determining who will be conference champions. Last season the two met at Arden Hills, and thanks to a dramatic defensive stand inside the 10-yard line, the Royals won the game and broke the Tommies string of three straight seasons as MIAC champs. There is no doubt St. Thomas is looking for a little payback.
Offensively the Tommies appear to have the clear advantage. They are No. 2 in the conference in total rushing yards, while the Royals are No. 4. St. Thomas is also No. 2 in passing yards, while Bethel is seventh. The Tommies have outgained the Royals by nearly 600 yards, but no one should be deceived by these numbers. For the most part these are two fairly evenly matched offensive groups.
Both teams have an outstanding group of running backs. For the Royals it is their Three Kings group of backs that includes Marshall Klitzke, Brandon Marquardt and Bridgeport Tusler, who as a group are arguably as dangerous and dynamic as any backfield in the country. The Tommies have their own big three in Jack Kaiser, Nick Waldvogel and Brenton Braddock who are just as dangerous as the Bethel trio, but they add an additional dimension – QB Matt O’Connell. O’Connell is a threat to run as well, and his ability as a rusher will be one of the keys to the game.
If not for the rushing yards, Bethel would have the clear advantage at quarterback. The Royals Erik Peterson was the MVP of the league last season, and this season he is putting up huge numbers again. He has a 66.7% completion percentage and 1264 yards passing. What makes him especially dangerous is how spectacular he can be, while at the same time not being careless. He has thrown 15 touchdowns this season and just four interceptions. O’Connell’s numbers are not far behind in terms of completion percentage (63.9%) and yards passing (1071), but he has less than half the number of touchdown passes (7) of Peterson and nearly as many interceptions (3). This would be a mismatch if it were not for the fact that O’Connell has 205 more yards rushing that his Royals counterpart.
Each team has a quality group of receivers, with Bethel’s Bryce Marquardt probably being the one game-changing receiver in the contest. The sophomore has 444 yards receiving and is tied for the team lead with eight touchdowns. He is followed on the team by Tusler, who is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. St. Thomas has a group of very steady receivers who will burn an opponent if taken for granted. Charlie Dowdle has 358 receiving yards and Pete Fitzsimmons adds 266 more and a 16.6 yards per catch average.
While the Tommies have an edge in the numbers on offense, the Royals have a slight edge on defense. They lead the league in points allowed, while the Tommies are third (15.0 to 16.5), and Bethel has a slight edge in yards allowed per game (284.7 to 298.8).
Both teams have outstanding talent on defense, and it spreads throughout all levels of the squads. Each team has a great group up front, active linebackers who make tackles, and defensive backs who produce and don’t give up big plays. They also both have great leadership and experience.
A more detailed look at the two defenses shows that other stats demonstrate how evenly matched these two are. The Tommies have 12 takeaways and 11 sacks, while the Bethel Royals have 11 takeaways and nine sacks. It’s not a big-play defense for either squad in terms of creating turnovers and sacking the quarterback, but that does not affect the reality of how good these two teams are. Both are sound fundamentally, don’t give up the big play, and also don’t give up many yards after first contact.
At the top, the Bethel Royals and St. Thomas Tommies have two of the best coaching staffs in the country. Glenn Caruso leads St. Thomas and has quickly established himself as one of the best young coaches in college football. In his ninth season with the team, he is 56-10 and won three straight conference titles from 2010-2012. On the other sideline will be Steve Johnson, who is in his 26th season at Bethel and has compiled a 190-80-1 record. Both coaches have incredible staffs and are superior teachers, but what makes them equally great is not in the teams they have built, but in how they have built programs. They have great teams, but that is a result of having a culture and program that exudes greatness. The chess match between the two will be a highlight of the contest.
An area where the Bethel Royals do have a clear advantage is in the return game. Brandon Marquardt and his brother Bryce are averaging nearly 35 yards per return between them and older brother Brandon has two returns for scores. Tusler is the leading punt returner in the conference at 13.4 yards per return. The Tommies don’t have anyone who can match those numbers.
This should be one of the most exciting games of the year and for both teams it begins a stretch of games that will see each team battling for their playoff lives each week for the next four weekends. The Bethel Royals and St. Thomas Tommies are both playing exceptional football right now, and no one should be surprised to see this game end in the same way as last year’s contest.
By Robert Pannier