As soon as the words escaped his mouth, Glenn Caruso caught himself. “It might not have been the prettiest win in the world,” the St. Thomas coach said Saturday, shortly after the Tommies’ 38-7 demolition of Wabash. “Although to win by 31 in the regional championship, I know it looks good.”
Aesthetics aside, Caruso found much to like as the fourth-ranked Tommies advanced to the Division III semifinals. They manhandled a team that looked much like themselves — one that was 12-0 and averaged 42 points a game while giving up 10 — with their offense, defense and special teams each playing a role at O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
The Tommies defense did not allow a score until Mason Zurek’s 4-yard touchdown run with 12 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the game. Zurek, who was averaging 162 rushing yards a game, was held to 72 yards as St. Thomas surrendered only 226 total yards to a team ranked No. 7 in the nation.
St. Thomas’ special teams blocked a punt, forced a fumble on another and recovered an onside kick, with all three plays setting up scores. Nick Waldvogel returned a punt 48 yards for the opening touchdown, and Charlie Dowdle ran for an 18-yard score on a fake field goal.
The Tommies will play Linfield, a 38-35 winner over Mary Hardin-Baylor in next Saturday’s semifinals. The site will be announced Sunday, with St. Thomas likely to host.
“When we perform to our abilities, we’re pretty dynamic,” said Caruso, whose team moved to 13-0 for the third time in its history. “I’ve said it many times: being dynamic as a team means you can win a game in many ways.
“Today, everyone had to chip in; it wasn’t just the offense, or just the defense, or just the special teams. All three phases are really performing well.”
The Tommies rolled to a 17-0 lead at halftime, holding Wabash to 85 yards and racking up 20:40 of possession time to the Little Giants’ 9:20. On St. Thomas’ second drive of the game, Waldvogel fielded a punt at the Wabash 48, threaded through the defense and stiff-armed the last player in his way en route to the end zone.
Quarterback John Gould hit Dowdle with a 28-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter to finish off a 98-yard drive. While Wabash did not get past the Tommies’ 35-yard line in the first half, Gould engineered a four-play, 48-yard drive in the final 25 seconds of the half, culminating in a 24-yard field goal by Paul Graupner.
Wabash assembled its best sequence of the game to start the third quarter. After advancing to the Tommies 14, a Zurek touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty, and the Little Giants missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt.
“That hurt,” Wabash coach Erik Raeburn said. “That would have given us a little life. We just didn’t play well today, especially on special teams. It’s frustrating.”
After recovering a fumbled punt at the Wabash 18, St. Thomas set up for a 35-yard field goal attempt; Dowdle, the holder, kept the ball and ran it in to extend the Tommies’ lead to 24-0. St. Thomas followed up with an onside kick that it recovered at the Wabash 33, then took a 31-0 lead on a 1-yard run by Jordan Roberts.
“I thought our team was mentally tough before we hit these last three games,” Caruso said. “But they’ve brought it to a whole new level. They can go toe-to-toe with any team in the country as far as toughness, physical and mental.”