Senior Conor Rhoda will make his fourth start of 2017 and his fifth overall as the Gophers quarterback when they open the Big Ten schedule against Maryland on Sept. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium. Junior Jacques Perra will make his fourth start of 2017 as the St. Thomas quarterback when it plays rival St. John’s in a pivotal MIAC game on Saturday at Target Field.
Perra was sitting in a corridor at the Tommies’ outstanding athletic facility this week and was asked if he contemplates what might have been had he remained on the football squad at the University of Minnesota.
He smiled and said: “Once in a while. I can guarantee you that I’m happy for Conor. He worked hard every day to get this chance.’’
And then Perra added: “I couldn’t be happier where I am, being part of this great team, getting ready to play the Johnnies. It’s a different scale, obviously, but for those of us involved, Tommies-Johnnies is more intense than any rivalry for the Gophers … Wisconsin and Iowa included.’’
Rhoda played at Cretin-Derham Hall and was offered preferred walk-on status after the 2012 season. Perra played at Roseville, threw for 32 touchdowns and 2,875 yards as a senior in 2013, was named as the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year and had scholarship offers from regional FCS schools and elsewhere.
“You don’t need eyes to be his receiver,’’ said Jesper Horsted, a favored target for Perra at Roseville. “If you put your arms out, you’ll catch it.’’
Horsted is now in his third season as a receiver for Princeton in the Ivy League, so there’s some credibility in that quote.
Jerry Kill went to Kansas City to offer a scholarship to Dom McKinzy (now the quarterback at Division II Northeastern, Okla. State) rather than Perra. Then, when Phil Nelson decided to transfer, Kill put a hard press on Perra and convinced him to commit in late January 2014 as a preferred walk-on.
Two seasons later, Perra had taken a couple of snaps with no stats, and was the No. 3 quarterback behind Mitch Leidner and freshman Demry Croft. Seth Green also was going to sign with the Gophers.
And Rhoda? He was the 2015 “Work Team Player of the Year,’’ meaning Conor was very enthusiastic as practice fodder.
“If Jerry Kill had remained the coach, I probably would have stayed,’’ Perra said. “I could tell there wasn’t much interest in me after Tracy Claeys got the job.’’
Perra enjoyed being in the Twin Cities — one reason being, watching his girlfriend Carlie Wagner shoot buckets for the Gophers had become part of his wintertime schedule.
Add it up: St. Thomas had been built into a national contender by Glenn Caruso, it had the academics Perra was looking for, and it’s only 3½ miles from the Tommies athletic facility to Williams Arena.
Perra announced before spring semester in 2016 that he was transferring to St. Thomas. He walked into a quarterback competition with Alex Fenske, a fifth-year senior with much experience in the Tommies’ approach to offense.
Fenske won the job and became the MIAC Player of the Year. Perra had a fair amount of work as the backup, playing in nine games and completing 44 of 75 passes for 543 yards.
“We all judge quarterbacks by the measurables — completions, yards, touchdowns — but there’s more to it,’’ Caruso said. “How hard do you work as you’re waiting for the opportunity? We couldn’t have asked more of Jacques.
“He doesn’t just look at a play; he dissects it. ‘OK, but what if we did this … how would the defense react? Could it also work this way?’ He’s a coach on the field.’’
Fenske and the 2016 Tommies didn’t lose until the 13th game of the season, a playoff defeat to Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Perra and the 2017 Tommies took an upset loss in the second game of the season at Wisconsin-Stout.
“We messed up a lot of chances early in that game,’’ Perra said. “Football never changes. If you don’t play well, you’re probably going to get beat.’’
That could turn out to be a blip on the Tommies’ resume. For instance: On Saturday, they will have Jordan Roberts (D-III Offensive Player of the Year in 2015), 2016 workhorse Tucker Trettel and the explosive Josh Parks (back from a knee injury) as the three-deep at running back.
Throw in Perra’s talent for getting the ball to receivers, and ending the three-game losing streak vs. St. Thomas isn’t going to be a walk in the big ballpark for the Johnnies.
“More than 30,000 people for a D-III game,’’ Perra said. “What an amazing rivalry. It’s great to be part of it.’’