There has been criticism aimed at coach Glenn Caruso and his St. Thomas juggernaut for a number of outlandish beatings administered to football teams from the MIAC’s second division in recent years.
A record number of complaints on this subject were fielded in the St. Thomas athletic department earlier this month after the 97-0 victory over St. Olaf that concluded another unbeaten run through the MIAC schedule for the Tommies.
The second round of the NCAA Division III national tournament is not a reasonable place for pleas of mercy, even though it appeared early on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in St. Paul that the Tommies were on the way to another landslide victory.
The opponent was Berry College, a liberal arts school that sits on the high ground of northwest Georgia. There are 2,200 undergraduates on a campus that covers more land — 27,000 acres — than any college in the world. And it was only six years ago that Berry hired coach Tony Kunczewski to put together a football program that would start play in 2013.
Berry had gone from winless to unbeaten in five seasons, and came into Saturday with some gaudy statistics. Those stats were looking a bit suspicious in the game’s first 18 minutes, as Berry totaled 25 yards and no first downs and was trailing the Tommies 22-0.
Fifty or 60 to nothing seemed possible.
It wasn’t. The Berry defense that was rated No. 5 in the country started to do some hard hitting against the bigger, more powerful Tommies. The visitors switched quarterbacks and Tate Adcock was able to hit a couple of big passes.
The tournament matchup turned competitive and the Tommies wound up grateful for a 29-13 victory. That’s because they fumbled five times (losing two) and also had an ill-advised throw for an interception by quarterback Jacques Perra.
There were also plenty of fine throws for Perra, who went 21-for-33 for 282 yards and two touchdowns — both to Gabe Green, a former quarterback converted to wide receiver.
Still, this resilient Berry bunch got two touchdowns when Adcock and receiver Mason Kinsey hooked up for a rapid-fire drive that cut the Tommies’ lead to 16 points with 4:40 left. Then came an onside kick, which was retrieved by Berry but questionably ruled not to have gone the required 10 yards by the officials (after a long consultation).
The play took place right at the Berry sideline. Kunczewski was asked if he was convinced the kick had not gone 10 yards.
“Nope, and I’m going to take it farther and say I’m not convinced the tipped pass on their last touchdown drive was not a diving interception by us,” he said.
And with that, the coach quickly switched to a sincere tribute to the excellence of St. Thomas — particularly the fierce defense.
The visiting Vikings (yup) rushed 15 times for 14 total yards. They gave up trying to run and threw 40 passes.
Asked how early he learned his team wasn’t going to be able to run against St. Thomas, Kunczewski said, “I’d say when watching film of them last Sunday.”
Feisty though were the visitors, the Tommies could have made it much more comfortable. With the 22-0 lead, St. Thomas reached these Berry yard lines — 26, 32, 11, 12, 28 and 27 — without adding a point.
Running backs Tucker Trettel and Josh Parks both fumbled twice, with Trettel losing one. Trettel and Parks also had the ball come loose on plays where they were ruled down.
“Our ball security was deplorable,” Caruso said. “If we don’t come up and hand the ball to the official, I consider it a ball security issue.”
The score was 22-7 for the Tommies with 10 minutes left when Caruso decided to sit Trettel and Parks and go with Stephen Wagner, usually a backup fullback.
The Tommies put together a 10-play, 66-yard drive with Wagner carrying five times and scoring on a 5-yard run. Wagner’s straight-ahead style was used for the Tommies’ last 11 running plays.
St. Thomas wound up establishing a school record for most offensive plays: 97, compared to 55 for Berry. The Tommies’ time of possession was 41:07 — impressive, although that includes the moments before they put the ball on the turf.
The D-III quarterfinal sites will be announced Sunday, and St. Thomas will be headed to Belton, Texas, next weekend to play Mary Hardin-Baylor, rated No. 1 and the defending national champion.
What must the Tommies improve on to meet such a challenge? “Ball security,” said Caruso, to no one’s surprise.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • firstname.lastname@example.org