Salem is the capital city of Oregon and located in the scenic Willamette Valley. Blanchet Catholic and Salem Academy, a Christian school, are located in the same area of town.

“Literally across the street from one another,” Ben Bartch said. “Salem Academy was our big football rival. We hated those guys.”

Bartch paused, brushed back the mop of hair escaping from his head band, and said: “We beat ’em in all four of my years. That was great.”

Those four victories over Salem Academy might not have added up to the level of greatness that Bartch experienced as a senior left tackle for St. John’s in Saturday’s 38-20 thumping of St. Thomas, in what’s expected to be the second-to-last game in the MIAC’s mightiest rivalry, and dating back a century.

The Johnnies defense was very stout after falling behind 14-0 in the first 11½ minutes, and Jackson Erdmann demonstrated again it’s probable this Division III conference has never had a better thrower as a quarterback, but what led to the second-half domination was the manner in which Bartch and his cronies destroyed the Tommies’ pass rush.

From left to right, the St. John’s offensive line was Bartch, Karl Rude, Nick Neumann, Dan Greenbeck and Josh Juare, with Neumann as the only non-senior.

A year ago, the Johnnies had ended a four-game losing streak vs. the Tommies, with Erdmann passing for 470 yards in the 40-20 victory. They were five-wide with receivers frequently in that game, and they turned this one around with a similar, rapid touchdown drive at the end of the first quarter.

As that drive started, St. John’s was trailing 14-0 and had run six plays. Erdmann’s pass on the third play of the game was tipped and intercepted by Tommy Fuller, leading to a St. Thomas touchdown. On the next possession, Erdmann was sacked by Sam Herriges, leading to a punt and another Tommies’ TD.

Then, on the first play of this third possession, the Johnnies were called for holding. So. St. John’s was first-and-20 at its 15, and offensive coordinator Kole Heckendorf decided it was time to spread out the Tommies and have Erdmann start gunning.

“We do that with Jackson every day in practice,” Bartch said. “We know if we give him time, Jackson is going to make the throws. And we gave him time.”

Plenty.

There was 3:23 left in the first period when Erdmann got the ball again. Over the final 48 minutes, he took one sack, the Johnnies punted once and they outscored the Tommies 38-6.

A defense has two options when facing a five-wide offense: Play coverage or go after the quarterback. “I’ve seen the Tommies more aggressive than they were today,” Bartch said.

Playing coverage didn’t work, but then neither did sending extra rushers — not over the last 48 minutes.

This is Gary Fasching’s seventh season as St. John’s coach. He’s now 4-4 vs. Glenn Caruso and St. Thomas, with one of those losses in the 2015 playoffs. His media session included questions about Erdmann’s excellence, and the defensive effort, and the pending end of this historic rivalry, but the coach made a point to aim a tribute at the offensive line.

“Those guys grind it out in practice every day,” Fasching said. “We affectionately call them the ‘Road Graders.’ They are paving the way.

“Late in the ballgames against Bethel last week, and this week, we’ve had to run the football. We put the big horse [Kai Barber] at running back and let the guys up front take care of business. It’s a good recipe for success.”

The Graders were also providing long moments for Erdmann to find T.J. Hodge (nine catches for 119 yards), Ravi Alston (nine for 116), Matt Mohr (four for 70), one beauty to tight end Jack Kemper for 50 yards — add up nine receivers and it was 32 completions for 456 yards for Erdmann.

That’s his second-highest career total, behind only last year’s 470 vs. St. Thomas.

Bartch is 6-6, 305 pounds and a guy who could be found in an NFL camp. His family has a cabin in the Boundary Waters and he decided on playing in Minnesota when there were no D-I offers. His options were St. John’s or St. Thomas.

“One reason I chose St. John’s is Erdmann was on campus that day, transferring from Penn State,” Bartsch said. “He said, ‘Come here to play. We’ll win it all.’ That sounded good to me.”

Sounded better than ever Saturday — 38-20 over the Tommies, and in front of almost 20,000 at Allianz. 

Write to Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.