Starting the season off on the road is always a tall order.
It’s an even taller one when it’s against the defending NCAA
Division III runner-up.
That’s exactly what the UW-Eau Claire football team was up against Saturday afternoon against the St. Thomas Tommies at O’Shaugnessy Stadium in St. Paul, Minn., a game in where the Blugolds lost 52-7.
“Really, it was a combination of things,” junior defensive back Thurgood Dennis said. “We didn’t execute the way we should, they were extremely disciplined and we were not. We did not react to a game atmosphere the way we thought we would, and St. Thomas took full advantage of that.”
St. Thomas scored two early touchdowns in the first quarter to make it 15-0 Tommies a fourth of the way through the contest, but the Blugolds answered right away to start the second 15 minutes.
Four seconds into the second quarter, Blugold senior and preseason All-American, Joel Sweeney rushed for a one yard touchdown to cap off a seven play, 67 yard drive in 7:06 of possession. The highlight of the drive was a 30-yard rush by Sweeney on a third down and two play. Freshman kicker Ian Scott of Mondovi, Wis., added the point after attempt to make the score 15-7 in favor of the Tommies.
“We needed that drive to stay in the game,” first-year starting quarterback Mark Munger said. “We were able to put together a really good drive. We passed a couple of times, we had some good runs. It was just huge to get that touchdown.”
After that drive, Eau Claire stopped all of its scoring. St. Thomas, on the other hand, did not. The Tommies racked up 37 unanswered points — 17 in the second quarter, seven in the third and 13 in the fourth — to run away from the Blugolds.
The Tommies had 26 first downs to Eau Claire’s 10 despite the fact the Blugolds had more time of possession in the game.
St. Thomas rushed for 280 net yards in the game, taking advantage of an Eau Claire defense coming off a season finishing eighth in the WIAC in total defense per game.
Tommies’ quarterback Matt O’Connell led the charge with 108 yards on only 11 carries out of the spread formation.
“It was mostly their quarterback that hurt us,” head coach Todd Glaser said. “They were running some read plays with him and he was a good player with good speed. He creased us a couple of times.
Munger, a junior from Eau Claire Memorial High School, started his first career game at quarterback and finished the day 11 of 18 passing for 141 yards and an interception.
“We thought he looked well in moving the ball around,” Glaser said of Munger.
“Right away, you have the nerves and the crowd and it’s a new experience so you get a little anxious,” Munger said. “But I felt confident in what I was able to do and I felt good out there.”
The Tommies were able to contain Eau Claire’s offensive juggernaut Sweeney, limiting him to just 52 yards on only eight carries.
Defensively, another preseason All-American senior Sean Graham led the squad with 10 tackles, eight of them solo.
Things don’t get any easier for the Blugolds, having to travel to St. John’s (Minn.) next Saturday before coming home on Sept. 28 to face Pacific Lutheran University, (Wash.) a nationally ranked team in Division III.
St. John’s has won four Division III national titles in its program’s history, but Munger said he feels the Blugolds are ready for the challenge.
“We feel like we can play with them,” Munger said. “We know it’s going to a tough battle. They have a great stadium and a great crowd, but it’s going to a fun atmosphere and we’re really looking forward to going there and playing.”
Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. Saturday at Clements Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.