Coach Glenn Caruso was asked which astounding statistic from his St. Thomas football team impressed him the most: The manner in which the defense wiped out the St. John’s running game, or in which the offense maintained control of the ball in the second half?
“Probably stopping the run,’’ Caruso said. “One yard only.’’
He paused and held his hands apart and said: “One yard. It’s like this. That’s not much.’’
Caruso thought about his answer and said: “But having the ball 25 minutes out of 30 in the second half. I can’t remember doing that.’’
You know what was most remarkable about the Tommies allowing one yard rushing and holding the ball 25 minutes in the second half?
It wasn’t a blowout. The final score was St. Thomas 20, St. John’s 17.
The Johnnies scored seven points in 5 minutes, 16 seconds of second-half possession. The Tommies scored three points in 24:44.
The storyline all week had been that a Division III record crowd would attend the first football game ever at Target Field. That unofficial record was 17,535, and this one was announced at 37,355.
And it didn’t look padded like the attendance for your average Gophers game in September. The fans were there, and everywhere downtown before and after.
This should be noted: This was a St. Thomas home game, but there was considerably more Johnnies red than Tommies purple visible from the press box.
To anyone who had witnessed St. John’s two losses in 2015 (one in the playoffs) and one in Collegeville in 2016, this Johnnies-Tommies contest looked familiar, even if the surroundings were unique.
The Tommies were bigger and stronger across both fronts. They had exceptional running backs to send at the Johnnies defense, and they had a defensive line that the Johnnies found difficult to move.
“Difficult” would describe the previous three games. Change that to “impossible’’ Saturday.
The Johnnies’ 1-yard rushing stat includes 32 yards lost by quarterback Jackson Erdmann on three sacks. Change the rushing stat to NFL style and the Johnnies still had only 33 yards on 17 carries.
“I thought we had a chance to run the football on them,’’ St. John’s coach Gary Fasching said. “We weren’t able to do that at all.’’
The Johnnies ran the ball on first down 10 times. They totaled 11 yards. Talk about hitting your helmet against a brick wall.
“We talked about talking some shots to Evan [Clark] at halftime,’’ Fasching said. “We should have done that earlier in the third quarter. That’s on me.”
Clark is a preseason All-America wide receiver. The Johnnies finally went looking for him in the middle of the fourth quarter. They missed on a couple (one had the Johnnies screaming for interference) and punted.
The Johnnies got the ball back with 6:20 left and trailing 20-10. Erdmann completed an 11-yard pass to Dan Harrington to the Tommies 40, and then Erdmann went deep to Clark as he ran past the defender for a 40-yard touchdown.
“Eureka … they found him,” shouted the red shirts.
It was 20-17, and the Tommies faithful who remembered the miraculous comebacks that John Gagliardi’s Johnnies had pulled off frequently in this series were getting nervous.
St. John’s had one more chance for the improbable. The Johnnies reached third-and-1 at their 30, and then two passes escaped Jared Streit, the 6-5 tight end. Streit had reached up his large hands to haul in an Erdmann touchdown pass in the first half.
So, a red-shirted optimist could say the Johnnies had a chance, but the team that runs 76 plays to 43, and holds the opponent to six first downs and 0-for-11 on third down, and has four running backs rush for 186 yards, and holds the ball all afternoon … that’s probably the team that’s supposed to win.
And that was St. Thomas, clearly the best for a fourth straight time vs. the Johnnies, whether on glorious fall days in Collegeville, or a frozen winter day in St. Paul, or in front of a spectacular turnout in a major league ballpark that is sure to see more football games in the future.
This is the first four-game winning streak for the Tommies in this series since 1954-57. Caruso is 7-2 vs. St. John’s in this decade.
“It’s an honor to be part of this,” Caruso said. “This will be remembered as the Target Field game. Heck, I have Tommies come up and talk about the Cigar Bowl and that was 1949, so this always will be the Target Field game.”