If Steve Johnson didn't know his football team so well, the Bethel coach might have been worried at the beginning of Saturday's NCAA Division III quarterfinal. St. Thomas took less than two minutes to score on the opening drive, as running back Colin Tobin churned through the Royals' defense for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson didn't panic, because he's come to understand two things about his players: They don't overreact and they rarely make the same mistake twice. Bethel committed few errors the rest of the way, shutting down the MIAC's highest-scoring offense and riding the record-setting legs of Logan Flannery to a 12-7 victory that vaulted it into the NCAA semifinals.
The 14th-ranked Royals (12-1) will play No. 2 Mount Union, winner of 10 of the past 17 NCAA titles, next Saturday in Alliance, Ohio.
Flannery, a senior, entered the game needing 182 yards to pass former Bethel star Phil Porta as the MIAC's all-time leading rusher. He picked apart the Tommies for 200 yards on 38 carries, and his second-quarter touchdown got the Royals into a rhythm they would maintain for the rest of the afternoon at snowy O'Shaughnessy Stadium.
The loss was the first this season for No. 4 St. Thomas (12-1), which could not overcome the absence of its two most dynamic players. All-America receiver and kick returner Fritz Waldvogel injured his hip on his first catch and watched from the sideline the rest of the day. Running back Ben Wartman, the Tommies' career rushing leader, was hurt in last week's victory over Linfield and did not play.
After Tobin's touchdown just 1 minute, 56 seconds into the game, Bethel put the brakes on a St. Thomas offense that had averaged 40.6 points. The Tommies managed only two first downs and 61 yards in the second half, while Royals quarterback Josh Aakre scored the deciding touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:24 left in the third quarter.
"One of the things I'm proud of with our guys is that we don't get affected by much,'' Johnson said. "Our defense is irritating for the other guys. They don't look like they should be able to do what they do, but they're disciplined and obedient. If you get something once, you won't get it again.''
This season marked the first time two MIAC schools had made it to the NCAA quarterfinals in the same season. Six weeks ago, St. Thomas beat Bethel 10-6 to secure its first MIAC championship since 1990. Johnson said his team doesn't do revenge, but careful deconstruction of the game film revealed mistakes that the Royals wanted to eliminate this time around.
Bethel tends to keep things simple -- Aakre and Flannery lead a highly efficient ground game, complemented by the MIAC's best defense -- and the team believed it could create a different outcome just through sharper execution. After the opening drive, Tobin got 24 more carries, but only 65 more yards. Bethel's fierce secondary kept the Tommies' passing game quiet, too, holding quarterback Dakota Tracy to seven completions on 18 passes.
While St. Thomas managed only eight first downs, the Bethel offense sustained several long drives, including an 88-yard march that ended with Flannery's touchdown, which pulled Bethel within 7-6 late in the second quarter. Aakre's winning score ended a 96-yard drive, as Bethel held the ball for 20:14 in the second half.
"When they needed to make plays, they made them," said Tommies coach Glenn Caruso, whose team's point total was the lowest in his three seasons at the school. "Their aggression got better and better as the game went on."
Flannery will get a chance to build on his 5,253 career yards next week against Mount Union, and the Bethel defense will get another chance to atone for the past. In the 2007 NCAA semifinals, Bethel lost to Mount Union 62-14.
"We let one slip early on that first drive,'' Royals linebacker Ross Petterson said. "But you could tell from looking in everyone's eyes we were going to give it our all. We couldn't be any happier."
NCAA FOOTBALL DIVISION III QUARTERFINALS BETHEL 12, ST. THOMAS 7
Semfinals: at Mount Union (13-0) 11 a.m. Saturday Alliance, Ohio