Injuries have forced St. Thomas to rely on a number of freshmen in another stellar season.
Glenn Caruso called for a long pass in the first quarter Saturday. Interception. "That was no one's fault but mine," Caruso said.
He opted for a bootleg on fourth down in the fourth quarter. Stuffed. "What a horrible call that was," Caruso said.
Between those apparent mistakes, Caruso's St. Thomas team left him with few regrets. The Tommies beat St. Norbert 48-17 at O'Shaunnessy Stadium in the first round of the Division III playoffs, relying on a slew of underclassmen at the end of a season pockmarked with injuries.
Redshirt freshman running back Brenton Braddock, of Mahtomedi, ran for four touchdowns, including an 82-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Matt O'Connell, of little Clear Lake, Wis., misfired on his first three passes and ended the Tommies' second possession with an interception. He completed 14 of his last 20 passes, leaving him with a career record of 10-0 as the Tommies improved to 11-0.
"He's our elder statesman," Caruso said with a smile.
Asked how his freshmen played, Caruso said, "Which ones? I mean, they were all over the place today. Just take the offense alone. Our top six receivers are freshmen. Our top two running backs are freshmen and our two starting tackles are freshmen. That's the reason why this season has been pretty special, and different from other seasons."
Caruso has won the Liberty Mutual Division III Coach of the Year award the past two seasons. This year, he wasn't relying on the players who turned St. Thomas into a national power, he was relying on the players who came to St. Thomas to replace stars such as Fritz Waldvogel and Dakota Tracy, who were in the St. Thomas locker room after the game.
"When you see Fritz Waldvogel and Dakota Tracy and you realize there are guys who have won 40, 45 games as starters, you're sort of coaching on cruise control," Caruso said. "We've had to earn our stripes this year. We've had an inordinate amount of injuries."
Saturday's game was scoreless, when, at the end of the first quarter, Caruso called for a fake field goal, and holder Kyler Anderson was tackled a yard short of the first down. A facemask penalty on St. Norbert led to first and goal.
That led to Braddock's first touchdown run early in the second quarter. The Tommies would lead 27-0 at the half.
"Usually when teams come into our house, they're very amped up," Caruso said. "Especially early. We find that a lot of teams will play their best football early, and then we hit our stride."
The cliché around the MIAC for decades was that if St. Thomas ever hired the right football coach, the Tommies would become a powerhouse that could match or surpass St. John's. The giant sleeps no more. Caruso's seniors have a career record of 47-4. These days, hearing the St. Thomas coach nitpick a blowout playoff victory sounds about right.
A year after taking St. Thomas to the national semifinals, Caruso has a young and battered team heading to the second round. He's attracting waves of talented, tough-minded kids to the picturesque campus in St. Paul with the kind of salesmanship that might not allow him to sell a minivan to the Octomom.
"The reason why I think we've kept ourselves so buoyant throughout the injuries is because in the recruiting process we try to go to the ends of the earth to not oversell a darn thing," Caruso said. "And be brutally honest. It might seem like, to a kid, 'Do you really want me to come there or not?' We try to tell them, 'We really want you to come to the University of St. Thomas, but if you're looking for the easiest path, I do not want you coming here. I want you going somewhere else.'
"We talk a lot in our program about easy versus worthy. Our society wants easy. We think that's crap. We want worthy around here."
St. Thomas will play Elmhurst in the second round of the playoffs. And, yes, Caruso will have his team practicing on Thanksgiving Day.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. email@example.com
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