Bethel must now win out for chance at playoffs
Sophomore quarterback Matt O'Connell played an efficient game for the Tommies, using his mobility to avoid sacks and make plays on the run.
Sports | Matt Kelley
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On a cool and drizzly afternoon, No. 4 St. Thomas (6-0, 4-0 MIAC) jumped out to a quick start and played disruptive defense, defeating No. 9 Bethel 37-0 at O'Shaunessey Stadium and leaving the Royals’ (5-1, 3-1 MIAC) dreams of a MIAC championship soggy at best.
“You have to give credit to St. Thomas – they dominated us in every phase,” said Bethel head coach Steve Johnson. “Anywhere that we were good, they were better. And everywhere we were bad, we got exploited.”
The 37-point drubbing is the worst for the Royals since the 2007 NCAA playoffs, when they fell to Mount Union 62-14. Bethel hasn’t lost a conference game by this spread since they were beaten by St. John’s 37-0 in 2004.
The Royals’ defense played much better than the scoreboard showed. But the Tommies controlled the ball – with over 40 minutes of possession – and took advantage of a few opportunities for easy scores.
“I think our defense played great but we didn’t help them on the other side of the ball,” Johnson said. “They were on the field all the time.”
The Tommies struck just five minutes into the game. After both teams exchanged three-and-outs, a St. Thomas punt bounced into Bethel corner David O’Reilly, and the Tommies pounced on the loose ball. Two plays later, Aaron Terrell-Byrd finished the 14-yard drive by scoring on a 1-yard run.
After another Bethel three-and-out, St. Thomas drove 65 yards and increased the lead to 14-0 when quarterback Matt O’Connell fumbled at the 1-yard line and receiver Dan Noehring recovered in the end zone.
O’Connell entered the game with some recent turnover issues, throwing eight interceptions and fumbling three times in the team’s previous five games. The sophomore was nearly flawless Saturday when he completed 19 of 31 pass attempts, ran for 89 yards and – most importantly – didn’t turn the ball over.
Bethel entered the locker room at halftime down 24-0 without a single first down and with only 14 yards of total offense.
The Royals’ defense stiffened in the third quarter, but the Erik Peterson-led offense, although better than in the first half, couldn’t string together first downs or generate any big plays. In all, the offense gained 160 yards and seven first downs – only one on the ground. Peterson totaled 129 yards passing on 27 attempts and threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown to seal it in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a young guy who’s learning – he made some mistakes,” Johnson said of his sophomore quarterback. “Then we had some mistakes up front. Those things build, and you get uptight.”
Bethel also had uncharacteristic struggles with penalties. Royals players were frustrated with calls all game, eventually boiling over when linebacker Seth Mathis was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after expressing disapproval of a pass interference penalty.
Adding to the Royals’ frustration was their inability to force St. Thomas to relinquish possession. The Tommies converted several long-yardage third downs and were 4-for-4 on fourth downs, including a fake field goal with 10 minutes remaining when St. Thomas already held a commanding 24-0 lead.
Although their chance at a conference championship has likely vanished, the Royals can still make the NCAA playoffs if they’re among the seven best teams who didn’t win their conferences. In all likelihood, that means winning out and showing the selection committee a 9-1 record. Bethel’s next game is Saturday, October 20, against Gustavus Adolphus College (2-4, 1-3 MIAC) in St. Peter, Minn.