Coach Glenn Caruso, who now has the most wins in school history, is delighted to return to Salem with his team in tow.
Glenn Caruso could not hold back the tears. Last December, after his St. Thomas team lost in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III football tournament, the coach attended the title game and wept because his players were not there with him.
Caruso was moved to tears again Saturday, for an entirely different reason. He will return to Salem, Va., this week with his Tommies in tow, after a 28-14 semifinal victory over Wisconsin-Oshkosh put St. Thomas into the NCAA title game for the first time in school history. The No. 3 Tommies (14-0) raced to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter at O'Shaughnessy Stadium, then outlasted the persistent Titans (13-1) and quarterback Nate Wara.
St. Thomas will play top-ranked Mount Union, which defeated Mary Hardin-Baylor 48-35 in Saturday's other semifinal. It will be the 16th appearance in the title game for the Raiders (14-0), who have won 10 NCAA championships.
The No. 5 Titans fumbled on the first play of the game, and Tommies lineman Ayo Idowu scooped up the ball and ran 25 yards for a touchdown after only 14 seconds had elapsed. Quarterback Matt O'Connell threw for one score and ran for two more, including an 8-yard run that capped a long drive late in the third quarter and put St. Thomas ahead 28-7.
The victory was the 57th of Caruso's five-year career at St. Thomas, pushing him past Frank Deig (1946-57) for the most wins in school history. It also kept intact his streak of increasing his victory total in each of his seven seasons as a head coach.
"I sat down there for three days and took it all in, and it hurt,'' Caruso said of his trip to last year's title game after the Tommies lost 20-0 to eventual champ Wisconsin-Whitewater in the semifinals. "All I kept thinking about was how much of a failure I was because I didn't have an opportunity to share that experience with the other 58 guys. I'm grateful we have that chance now.''
Though St. Thomas dominated the first quarter, Caruso said he was on edge until the end. The Titans are well known for late rallies, including last week's comeback from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat No. 2 Linfield on the road.
Wara broke his pinky finger in that game, which didn't seem to affect him Saturday. The senior threw for 266 yards, keeping his team afloat after the Tommies' defense shut down the Titans' rushing game. Wisconsin-Oshkosh ran for only 25 yards.
The Tommies converted a blocked punt into their second touchdown, a 6-yard pass from O'Connell to Logan Marks, and ended a 16-play, eight-minute drive with their third to take a 21-0 lead before the first quarter had ended. Wara launched the Titans' comeback with a 77-yard touchdown strike to Cory Wipperfurth early in the second quarter.
The Titans' defense slowed the Tommies, intercepting O'Connell twice and forcing a fumble that gave them the ball at the St. Thomas 26-yard line late in the third quarter. St. Thomas' defense matched their ferocity. Wisconsin-Oshkosh turned the ball over four times, and after they recovered the fumble, they gained only 8 yards.
The victory was the Tommies' 17th in a row at home, pushing their record to 39-2 over the past three seasons.
"We thought we could take advantage of their young team," said Titans coach Pat Cerroni, who led his team to its first conference title in 36 years. "But their front seven on defense are phenomenal, and their offensive line is very physical."