St. John’s Johnnies Come Marching Home Winners, 24-14
On a hot day in St. Paul, the St. John’s Johnnies followed a well-established philosophy for winning: get an early lead, employ a smothering defense and ride the legs of your stud running back. The three-pronged strategy was employed to perfection by Johnnies Coach Gary Fasching as St. John’s pulled out a huge 24-14 victory over the St. Thomas Tommies.
A sell-out crowd seemed equally divided between the Johnnies and Tommies, virtually eliminating the Tommies home field advantage. St. Thomas entered the game undefeated, while the Johnnies entered the contest 2-1. This is a rivalry that has seen the two teams play 83 times, with St. John’s winning 50 of the matches entering the game, including 17 of the last 21.
St. John’s received the opening kick-off and were held on their first possession to a three and out series, however, a running into the punter penalty on fourth and three allowed the team to keep the ball, and they were not to be denied. With new life the Johnnies ran the ball seven times on the drive, and Nick Martin had a 15-yard completion on second and 11, plus added a 23-yard strike to Josh Bungum to make the score 7-0. Martin looked especially good early on, not only completing passes but also adding 15 yards on two carries.
St. Thomas immediately responded on their first possession of the game. QB Matt O’Connell completed a 17-yard pass to Dan Ferrazzo during the drive, but it was the running game that did most of the damage. Jack Kaiser and Nick Waldvogel alternated carries, as the two combined for 42 yards on five carries. Brenton Braddock took it into the end zone from three yards out to cap-off the drive and tie the score.
The two teams exchanged punts on their next series, but field position played a significant factor in each of the series. St. John’s moved the ball well, but their drive stalled at the St. Thomas 37. Griffin Toomey then dropped a perfect punt that was downed at the one yard line. An offsides penalty moved the ball back another half yard, and it left the Tommies with very little room for error. STU was able to move the ball out to the seven, but was forced to punt. Pete Fitzsimmons had a fine punt that Brett Watercott chose to fair catch at the 44, and that is where St. John’s began their next possesson.
SJU began their drive looking to feature star junior tailback Sam Sura. He would star alright, but it would not take long for him to make a rather loud statement. Sura was handed the ball on the first play of the drive and cut back to his left, racing down the sideline untouched for the 44-yard score. It was an early statement by Sura, but he would have a whole lot more to say before this day was through.
The Tommies looked to respond right away, moving the ball from their own 41 and taking it to the St. John’s 25. There things went awry. The Tommies would see their drive come up empty in a pattern that became all too familiar as the game moved along. STU found on a few occasions that they were able to move the ball deep into the Johnnies end of the field, but as they got close to the south end zone they were also entering the part of the stadium that was dominated by a sea of red-jerseyed St. John’s fans. The crowd became vocal and seemed to give the defense a little extra pep. The result on this possession was a defensive stop that made it fourth and one at the SJU 16. St. Thomas decided to go for it, but a false start penalty moved the ball back five yards, forcing the Tommies coaching staff to change their minds. They set up for a field goal, but opted for a fake, as Dan Ferrazzo attempted to run for the first down. He was stopped after a one yard gain and the ball was turned over on downs.
The Johnnies took over possession, but they were unable to maintain possession forcing them to punt. STU took over at their own 30 and, again, they were able to move the ball well, this time down to the SJU 27. There, in the shadow of the Johnnies fans, the Tommies were stopped again. Coach Glenn Caruso opted to kick a field goal, but Paul Graupner’s kick sailed wide left and the score remained 14-7.
With 28 seconds left in the half, the Johnnies moved the ball to the UST 46, but a Hail Mary pass fell incomplete, bringing the half to an end.
The half-time statistics proved that the game was as close as the score depicted. The Johnnies owned the time of possession 15:40 to 14:20, and had one additional yard rushing. They also had three more first downs. All-in-all the numbers were close and this was apparent on the scoreboard as well, where it was just a one score difference in the game.
St. Thomas received the opening kick-off of the second half and moved the ball to the SJU 25-yard line. There the sea of red did their thing again. Two running plays made it third and six. QB Matt O’Connell’s next pass went incomplete setting up a fourth and six. Coach Caruso decided to go for it, but O’Connell missed his target again, and the ball was turned over on downs for the second time. Three times the Tommies had penetrated inside the 30-yard line of SJU, only to come away empty handed each time.
Taking the ball from their own 21, the Johnnies rode their outstanding running back, handing him the ball in five of the first six plays of the drive. He gained 38 yards in those carries, including a 23-yard run where he broke a couple of tackles before finally being pushed out of bounds. With STU now focusing their attention on Sura, Nick Martin hit Zack Sundly coming across the flat, and Sundly did the rest, racing toward the end zone for the score and the 21-7 lead.
If being down 14 was not enough, the Tommies would lose their quarterback as O’Connell was pulled from the game and John Gould took over. The junior quarterback led a three and out drive on his first series, but in his second series he showed he was up to the task of being the signal-caller on this day. The junior led an 11-play, 71-yard drive, completing three passes for 64 yards and rushing for 12 more to move the ball to the one yard line. From there Jack Kaiser burst to the right for the score. The Johnnies lead was now just seven as the fourth quarter began. Time for their smothering defense and big-time tailback to deliver.
Sura had two carries for 30 yards in a seven play drive that ended with the Johnnies giving St. Thomas poor field position at their own 14. Gould continued to impress, as he methodically moved the Tommies to their own 48-yard line. On second and nine, catastrophe hit, however, as Gould’s pass was tipped into the air and Randy Perez waited for what seemed like five minutes before the ball dropped into his arms for the interception.
Sura then carried the ball four straight times, moving the team to the STU 23. The drive stalled at the 21, and Coach Fasching turned to Alexi Johnson to try to extend the lead with a 38-yard field goal. He nailed it, making it 24-14.
The Tommies got the ball back with 5:49 left in the game, and again looked like they were going to have a chance to cut this to a one score contest. Gould completed back-to-back passes to Ryan Bradley for 17 and 18 yards, and then ran for 11 more to put the ball at the Johnnies 25. On a first and ten play, senior DE Matt Workman read the play perfectly and burst his way through the line, bringing Gould down for a 10-yard loss. That set-up a second and 20. Gould then dropped a perfect screen pass to Waldvogel on the next play, and the running back was making good yardage, but Jeremy Piper stripped him of the ball, and Garrett Ackerman recovered to give the football back to St. John’s.
The Johnnies were forced to punt again, and once again it would be their defense that made a big play, and one more time it would be their big play-making defensive end that be the difference. On third and three Gould completed a pass to Austin Harrington that moved the ball to the SJU 37. On the next play, Workman hesitated in his move to rush the quarterback, then split the gap and ran down Gould, stripping him of the ball. It was recovered by Ryan Michaelis and for the third straight possession St. Thomas had turned the ball over.
The Tommies had one more chance to put points on the board, getting the ball back at their 31 with 38 seconds left. Gould completed a 20-yard pass to Charlie Dowdle to move the ball to the SJU 49, but two plays later he aired it out for the end zone trying to get a quick score and Ackerman played it perfectly for the interception.
It was the kind of nightmarish fourth quarter that keeps coaches up at night. Four possessions, two interceptions and two fumbles. The Tommies struggles did not end their however. An inability to score on three straight possessions near or inside the 20 sealed their fate this day. They left points on the field and were unable to recover as a result.
For the Johnnies it was a huge victory led by their star tailback. Sura finished with 210 yards on 38 carries, including a touchdown. The big day was his second 200 yard day of the season already this season. Afterward he credited his offensive line for the holes they were creating for him. “They were unbelievable today. They created holes where I was untouched and just did a great job today.”
On defense Matt Workman was the big hero of the day for the Johnnies. He had three sacks and forced a fumble that sealed the victory. He had two other tackles as well. After the game Workman spoke about the game plan. “We knew coming in that St. Thomas has a bigger team, but we are quicker, and we just used that to our advantage.” The Johnnies were clearly the quicker team on this day on both sides of the ball, and Workman’s effort typifies this.
The game was a huge win for the Johnnies who now march home to play Hamline next weekend. St. Thomas travels to St. Olaf to play the Oles (0-4).
By Robert Pannier