COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. - St. Thomas arrived at Clemens Stadium on Saturday with consecutive MIAC titles, with 18 victories in a row in conference games and 26 in a row in the regular season.
The Tommies found themselves in trouble in the first half. The trouble lasted for roughly five minutes.
Down 14-7 early in the second quarter, the Tommies scored the next 29 points, and went from there to a 43-21 pasting of St. John's. That gave them a third consecutive victory over St. John's for the first time since 1954.
John Gagliardi was in his second season at St. John's that fall. He is in his 60th season at St. John's this fall.
This was his 600th game as the coach of the Johnnies. And if that wasn't enough inspiration, St. John's also brought in as many of its living All-America honorees as could be mustered. Fifty-five of 80 accepted the invitation, and they were introduced to the announced crowd of 14,286 at halftime.
The Tommies had taken some pizzazz out of the festivity by scoring with 1.7 seconds on the first-half clock. This is how things got there:
Sophomore Matt O'Connell, the starting quarterback after a year of apprenticeship under Dakota Tracy, threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to an open Dan Noehring on the Tommies' first play from scrimmage.
St. John's came back with drives of 80 and 82 yards to go in front 14-7 in the first minute of the second quarter. When O'Connell followed with an interception to cornerback Bobby Fischer, that's when the spectators might have shared the thought:
"The Tommies are in trouble.''
It wasn't a view shared on the St. Thomas sideline. The Tommies defense -- fierce in its pursuit of St. John's quarterback Connor Bruns throughout the afternoon -- forced a punt.
There was 9:39 left in the half and the Tommies went 80 yards in 11 plays. And then Glenn Caruso, the coach responsible for St. Thomas' gigantic turnaround, had holder Dan Ferrazzo run it in for a two-point conversion.
The Tommies had more trickery before the end of the half. They drove to the Johnnies 7 with seven seconds left. And they had a play for the occasion: O'Connell rolls right, then throws across the field to Logan Marks standing in the front corner of the end zone.
"We ran that same play for the third touchdown when we played 'em last year,'' Marks said. "That one just came a lot earlier in the game.''
True. The Tommies led 49-0 at halftime a year ago, on the way to a 63-7 carnage that was the most lopsided ever for St. Thomas vs. St. John's.
This touchdown hurt more, since it made a difference. The decades of All-Americas had to make the ceremonial walk under a scoreboard that read: St. Thomas 22 St. John's 14.
Really, it wasn't much of a contest after that. There were multiple Tommies charging toward Bruns most any time he tried to throw. And the Johnnies couldn't run at all -- 26 yards in the first quarter, a minus-2 rushing the rest of the game.
The Johnnies kept shuffling offensive linemen and never found an effective combination.
The Tommies didn't have that problem. O'Connell had time to throw, and O'Connell and Ryan Toney had some room to run. Toney squeezed into the end zone three times -- from 1, 5 and 7 yards.
"I like that,'' the sophomore from Dublin, Calif., said. "I'll take that nickname.''
St. John's had one moment of life late in the third quarter: O'Connell's pass floated to Fischer for an interception at the Tommies 17. Turns out, the intended receiver fell down.
The Johnnies scored in one play, but with no running game and no pass protection, it was a short-lived rally.
When it was over, Caruso followed his post-victory tradition: He went to the stands where the undergraduate seminarians congregate and they all sang Caruso's original composition, "On the Corner of Cretin and Summit.''
Meantime, Gagliardi was digesting the 128th loss in his 600 games at St. John's. Asked about the Tommies, he offered an observation that opponents had aimed at his teams many times:
"I don't know where they have a weakness, to be honest with you.''
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. firstname.lastname@example.org