St. Thomas Holds on for 20-17 Win over St. John’s before Record Crowd
September 23, 2017

St. John’s versus St. Thomas at Target Field

St. Thomas dominated in yardage, time of possession, and controlling the line of scrimmage but were almost undone by turnovers in beating St. John’s 20-17 before a crowd of 37,355 in the first football game held at Target Field in Minneapolis. The attendance was the highest ever for a Division III football game.

The rivalry between the schools (St. John’s came into the game ranked sixth nationally with St. Thomas ranked tenth), combined with the setting, provided for an unforgettable experience for players from both teams. St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso called it an “honor” to play at Target Field. He said he was most pleased by all the alumni who came from different parts of the country. Tommies kicker Bryan Steinsapir, who made two field goals, had seven family members fly in from his native Chile.

On a warm and humid day, the St. John’s defense fought fatigue and cramps as St. Thomas had nearly double the time of possession, including 25 of the final 30 minutes. The Johnnies had only 1 net yard rushing, putting more pressure on quarterback Jackson Erdmann, who noted that, “They [St. Thomas defense] dropped back and covered when we anticipated blitzing.”

The crowd size and perhaps nerves played a role in false-start penalties for both teams, and Erdmann noted the added noise made it a challenge to call audibles and make the snap count hurt and that he switched a clapping cadence.

The Johnnies’ trouble moving the ball started with the opening possession but St. John’s got a break when Vinny Pallini dropped Naufahu Anitoni’s punt, and the Johnnies’ Robbie Skiba fell on it on the Tommies’ 25. The drive ended with Zack Barwick kicking a 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 St. John’s lead.

St. Thomas got going on its second possession with a series of big pass plays. On third and seven at the 34 yard line, Luke Iverson made a great catch to haul in a Jacques Perra pass for a 35-yard gain to the St. John’s 31. Perra followed with a swing pass to Jordan Roberts, who broke a tackle and got to the 16. A holding penalty followed, and Perra then overthrew Grant Slavik in the end zone. Following a false-start penalty, Perra had to scramble. On the run he fired to tight-end Matt Christenson, who used his footwork to get into the end zone and, with the point after, give St. Thomas a 7-3 lead.

The Tommies struck again in the second quarter after taking possession at its own 39. Perra fired downfield to Gabe Green, who had beaten cornerback Sam Westby. Westby made a desperate and futile dive, leaving Green with an easy jaunt the rest of the way across the goal line.

The Johnnies couldn’t move the ball on their next possession but ended up with a short field after Max Jackson returned Robert Petitjean’s line-drive punt 19 yards to the Tommies’ 31. On the first play, Erdmann threw a wobbly pass that looked to be an interception by Mark Dowdle. However, from behind, tight-end Jared Streit leaped and took the ball away at the 8 yard line. Streit turned, broke a tackle attempted by Chris Fondakowski, and bulled his way to a touchdown with 2:27 left in the half.

The Tommies controlled the next drive, running out most of the remaining time and getting close enough for Steinsapir to kick a 34-yard field goal for a 17-10 halftime lead. The Tommies outgained the Johnnies 225 to 94 in yards from scrimmage in the first half.

St. Thomas scored only once in the second half, on a Steinsaper 43-yard field goal, the second longest of his collegiate career.

In the fourth quarter St. Thomas drove again and seemed assured of more points. However, on third and goal from the 6, Perra tried to hit Slavik on over the middle on the goal line even though Westby was in the vicinity. Westby intercepted the pass and returned it to the 12.

Still, the Tommies were in control, able to keep receivers covered as they had totally shutdown the St. John’s ground game. They were able to run time off the clock, punt, and get the ball back quickly. With about six-and-a-half minutes left, though, the Johnnies came up with another big play as St. Thomas, at its own 4, punted. Ryan LaCasse burst in and partially blocked Petitjean’s punt, and the Johnnies got the ball at their own 49.

Erdmann connected with Dan Harrington for 11 yards, and then went long to speedy Evan Clark, who had a step on cornerback Austin Lorch. Erdmann’s pass was perfect, and Clark hauled it in for a 40-yard touchdown to pull the Johnnies to within 20-17.

Fasching said that at halftime they had talked about taking a couple of shots with Clark and that he wished he would have tried it earlier. “Clark can outrun anyone,” the coach remarked.

The Johnnies held on the next series and got the ball back at their own 21 with 3:20 to go. Erdmann hit Will Gillach for nine yards on second down, but Streit dropped a third-down pass that would have been a first down. With 2:49 left and needing a yard for a first down, the Johnnies didn’t even give the appearance of the run, going with the shotgun with no running backs near the quarterback. Erdmann fired to Streit, who initially had the ball, only to have it knocked loose by linebacker Adam Brant and others.

The Tommies held on, even getting enough on a fourth-down sneak by Perra to maintain possession with 1:43 to go. St. John’s was out of time outs, and Perra took a couple of knees to run out the clock for a 20-17 win for St. Thomas.

Perra, who had played at Roseville Area High School and then the University of Minnesota before transferring to St. Thomas, completed 12 of 24 passes for 230 yards. Jeremy Molina led a quartet of running backs with 62 yards on nine carries.

Kai Barber had 15 yards on the ground for St. Johnson but negative rushing by Erdmann and Dusty Krueger left the Johnnies with only one net yard. Erdmann was 10 for 22 passing for 127 yards. He also caught a 23-yard pass from tight-end Tommy Auger on a flea flicker.

For the fans, the players, and all others involved, the first football game at Target Field was described by Caruso as an “unforgettable experience.”

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