In each of its final four games of the regular season, it took a while for St. Thomas to get its high-octane offense running at full speed. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to coach Glenn Caruso that his team sputtered early Saturday, as it opened the NCAA playoffs against La Verne (Calif.) on the first bitterly cold day of the football season.
Neither team scored in the first quarter. But once the Tommies got on a roll, they kept going, overwhelming the Leopards 57-14 at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. Quarterback John Gould threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns — including a 67-yard strike to Charlie Dowdle and a 36-yard toss to Jordan Roberts — to push the No. 4 Tommies to 11-0 and set up a second-round matchup against No. 10 St. John’s next Saturday.
The Tommies scored three touchdowns in the final 9 minutes, 58 seconds of the second quarter for a 21-0 halftime lead. After La Verne (8-2) cut it to 21-7 early in the third quarter, St. Thomas answered with 22 consecutive points.
“We’re not real into style points,’’ Caruso said. “If that means it doesn’t look pretty when we start the game, so be it.
“It’s about accomplishing what you need to do to move on to the next round. We did that, and I’m proud of how we responded.’’
La Verne coach Chris Krich was proud of his team, too. The Leopards, making their first NCAA playoff appearance since 1994, traded the balmy 80-degree weather of their campus near Los Angeles for a 23-degree day Saturday with a wind chill of 12. Running back Travis Sparks-Jackson said it was “a cool experience’’ to play on an afternoon that led an announced crowd of 1,832 to huddle under blankets and make a run on hot chocolate at the concession stand.
Sparks-Jackson ran for a game-high 155 yards and scored on an 8-yard dash in the fourth quarter. He said his team “embraced’’ the weather—even stripping off its shirts for Friday’s on-field walkthrough—but was unable to heat up against a Tommies defense that has not allowed any opponent to score more than 14 points this season.
La Verne also lost its top two quarterbacks to injuries in the first half. Third-stringer Josh Evans, a freshman playing his first college game, threw for 76 yards and a touchdown.
“They were in every hole, every time,’’ said Sparks-Jackson, whose team held a slight edge in possession time but lost two fumbles and allowed the Tommies to amass 586 total yards. “They were just relentless in pursuit.’’
The Tommies offense was relentless, too, once it found its stride. Gould said his team did not get nervous or upset when its first two drives collapsed, as it failed to convert on fourth-and-1 at the La Verne 6-yard line and turned the ball over on downs again after a failed fake punt.
As the Leopards’ defense concentrated on stopping the run, Gould began finding open receivers for several big plays. Roberts’ opening score was set up by Gould’s 56-yard toss to Nick Waldvogel, and the next two times the Tommies got the ball, Gould needed only one play to score as he delivered long touchdown passes to Roberts and Dowdle.
It didn’t take long for Caruso to turn his attention to St. John’s, whom the Tommies will face in the NCAA playoffs for the first time. St. Thomas beat St. John’s 35-14 in Collegeville earlier this season.
“It’s an exciting week already,’’ Caruso said. “And it’s only about 20 minutes old.’’