John Gagliardi won more football games than any college coach in history, yet he had the ability to fret about the smallest things. He could get himself in a dither about the upcoming challenge of a game against Carleton. (Sorry, Knights.)

A larger concern that Gagliardi expressed in my presence more than once was what would occur if the Johnnies’ archrival, St. Thomas, was to hire a dynamic coach.

“The Tommies are a sleeping giant,” Gagliardi said. “I don’t know how we keep beating them.”

It was a happy day for John after the 1986 season when it was announced that Mark Dienhart had resigned as Tommies football coach to move into administration. Dienhart had a .742 winning percentage in six seasons, with an unbeaten MIAC champion in 1983.

The Tommies went through three coaches in 21 years after Dienhart: Vic Wallace (29-30-2), Mal Scanlan (34-16) and Dan Roney (54-44). Roney resigned after a 2-8 record in 2007.

Athletic director Steve Fritz then found the coach to wake the sleeping giant, and he only had to go a mile to the east —to Macalester — to find him in Glenn Caruso.

On Saturday, Caruso and his current athletes became the first St. Thomas team with a chance to defeat St. John’s twice in a season, and the Tommies did so — 38-19 in the cold of an NCAA Division III playoff game in late November in St. Paul, to go with a 35-14 thumping in the warmth of late September in Collegeville.

Boxscore and Division III tournament bracket: Click here.

The Tommies’ formula was identical: Use a huge, mobile offensive line to create space for running back Jordan Roberts, and then send the Slashin’ Seminarian at the Johnnies repeatedly.

St. Thomas led 22-0 with 5 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the first half. At that point, the Tommies had run 41 plays from scrimmage to St. John’s nine, and Roberts had 21 carries for 89 yards with two touchdowns.

The Johnnies scored on a long pass, the Tommies came back with a long kickoff return by Jack Gilliland, and then Roberts scored his third touchdown before halftime to make it 29-7.

Nick Martin, the Johnnies senior quarterback, was drilled late in the first half and wound up missing the rest of his last game because of a mild concussion. Without Martin, the best guess was that things would get more lopsided, but the Johnnies defense was more stout in the second half.

It was too late, of course. The Tommies defense isn’t one to blow 22-point leads.

Most of the attention has been focused on the Tommies offense: 56.5 points per game in their previous 11, the highest average among the 660 teams playing football in the three NCAA divisions.

Meantime, the overlooked defense was giving up 8.7 points per game. The 19 points the Johnnies scored Saturday were the most for a St. Thomas opponent this season.

Jesse Addo, a junior linebacker from Wayzata (Minnesota’s Linebacker High), had two sacks, including one for a safety, and a forced fumble on a Martin option.

Asked if the “ones” on offense ever took on the “ones” for the Tommies defense in preseason scrimmages, Addo said: “Yes, it’s very competitive.”

Mozus Ikuenobe, a senior cornerback, added: “Ridiculously competitive.”

The ferocity of the 2015 Tommies defense was demonstrated in how it contained Sam Sura, St. John’s relentless senior running back. Sura rushed for a combined 298 yards on 61 carries in victories over St. Thomas in 2013 and 2014.

St. John’s was voted by MIAC coaches to repeat as conference champions in 2015. Nobody was certain what Caruso had brewing for his eighth season at St. Thomas.

The indication that the Sleeping Giant had regained its growl came earlier this year in Collegeville — with Sura being held to 74 yards on 25 carries, while Roberts had 31 carries for 230 yards and four touchdowns.

Roberts left South Dakota and enrolled in the St. John Vianney seminary at St. Thomas last January, to train for the priesthood.

After that game, this observation was made to St. John’s coach Gary Fasching: “Too bad Roberts wanted to be a priest and not a monk.”

It was similar Saturday, as the Tommies limited Sura to 54 yards on 18 carries. Roberts didn’t get loose as he did in Collegeville, but he was the force as the game was being decided in the first 25 minutes. Roberts had three touchdowns, giving him seven in two games vs. the Johnnies.

Fasching was asked if this was the best St. Thomas team in Caruso’s transformation of the program.

“I will say it’s very close to the 2012 team that got all the way to the national championship game,” he said.

The Tommies need two more victories to get there. The next will be Wabash, with the expectation it will be a St. Thomas home game Saturday.

Memo to Wabash: Pack a lunch, because the only thing better than the fabulous Tommies offense could be their defense.

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com