COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann already had completed 27 passes in 51 attempts. Those had accounted for three touchdowns and a school record of 461 yards.
And now, St. Thomas was on the St. John’s 1-yard line and there were 11 minutes left in the game. Josh Parks was primed to score his fourth touchdown and cut the Johnnies’ lead to under a touchdown.
The Johnnies were trying to do more than end a four-game losing streak vs. St. Thomas and put an end to the Tommies’ 30-game winning streak in MIAC games. They also were trying to win a game in honor of John Gagliardi, the coach who held forth for 60 seasons on this campus and became the winningest college coach in history.
Gagliardi had died early last Sunday morning at age 91. And although he was not much for emotional appeals, and none of Saturday’s Johnnies actually played for him, they felt the obligation to play great and get the upset victory over the archrivals.
“John had been in our thoughts all week,” Erdmann said. “And then they were down there on the 1, and I said, ‘Come on, John, help us out here. We could really use some help right now.’ ”
Parks had taken off in the game’s first minute on a 92-yard touchdown, and he scored on a 60-yarder to start the second half. The third touchdown was a 1-yard dash late in the third to cut the Johnnies’ lead to 33-20, and now the Tommies were going to run the same play on first down to capture all of the late afternoon’s momentum.
“Help, John,” said Erdmann on the sideline, and any number of people in the announced crowd of 16,922 that had sat in the natural bowl during those Gagliardi years (1953-2012) and watched the Johnnies pull victory from the hellish fires of defeat.
Linebacker Alex Sais rallied to make contact with Parks, and as the Tommies’ outstanding back neared the turf, there was the football sitting free. Jerry Haugen, a Gagliardi assistant for 37 years, was on a headset in the press box in his role as co-defensive coordinator.
“I saw the ball,” Haugen said. “I was yelling, ‘Somebody see it; somebody pick it up.’ And then Max [Jackson] was there. Yah, Max, our one starter in the secondary that didn’t have an interception. … Max picked it up and took off.”
And there was Jackson, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate who the Tommies had worked hard to keep in St. Paul, racing down the sideline. There were no thoughts for him about racing off to victory in Gagliardi week, no thoughts about ending the losing streak against the Tommies.
There was only one thought: “Don’t get caught,” Jackson said.
Jackson was not caught. It was a 99-yard fumble return and a 40-20 lead that became the final score.
St. Thomas finished with 610 yards. The two long pops from Parks accounted for 152 yards, and there were 100-plus after Jackson’s return settled the outcome.
So, it wasn’t really an offensive romp for the Tommies, and the first four of five interceptions thrown by Jacques Perra were killers.
Erdmann was the game-changing quarterback on Saturday. A year ago, the Johnnies had played the Tommies in front of 30,000 in Target Field, and they spent a lot of time trying to run into the St. Thomas defensive wall.
Erdmann’s final numbers were 28-for-53 and 470 yards, surpassing Kurt Ramler’s program record of 455. Will Gillach caught 14 passes that totaled 256 yards (a school record for yardage).
Asked if the ability to throw with such success was a pleasant surprise, Gillach said: “The plan all week was to be as aggressive as possible against their man-to-man coverage. When you throw the way our quarterback does, that can be the plan. Jackson is a special player.”
Erdmann gave much credit to his offensive line, even though he had to avoid the Tommies’ blitzing pressure to make a number of his biggest plays.
And Gillach and the other receivers were either running past Tommies defenders or beating them as the ball arrived.
“Their receivers did a great job of adjusting to ball,” said Glenn Caruso, the St. Thomas coach. “They gave us some different formations, and Jackson Erdmann played a terrific game. And our turnovers made it tougher.”
Gillach and Parks were teammates at Chisago Lakes High School. Parks’ three touchdowns and 259 yards kept St. Thomas in the game, and Gillach’s two touchdowns reassured the Johnnies that they could continue to move with Erdmann’s passing in the second half.
The score was 19-14 after Parks’ touchdown to open the second half, and then Erdmann hit Gillach with 31- and 14-yard touchdown passes within four minutes of the third quarter.
After that, all it took was a bit of intervention from a new arrival at the great gridiron in the sky.
“A lot of us from St. John’s had the same thought as Max was running down the sideline toward that touchdown,” Haugen said. “ ‘John punched that ball out.’ ”