Saints Take First Playoff Game, Down Washington & Lee, 51-21
In the first football playoff game in Crestview Hills in five years, Thomas More looked like it was used to the postseason after dominating Washington & Lee, 51-21, to advance to NCAA Division III's second round next week.
The season has been a special one, with the Saints dedicating the year to their fallen teammate Mitch Kramer who died in an ATV accident before the Saints' first game. The team responded by going 11-0 and winning the Presidents Athletic Conference championship. The goal of winning a national championship is still very much on the table for Thomas More who will travel to play Wabash next week in playoff quarterfinal round.
“It’s very special. Obviously we haven’t made it to the playoffs since I’ve been here,” said senior wide out Goose Cohorn who has school records for most catches and most receiving yards in school history. “With Mitch passing away early in the year we wanted to dedicate this season to him, first with winning the PAC championship and then we wanted to make a run in the playoffs so it’s really been an unforgettable year and probably the most memorable of my 15-year career.”
The opponent on Saturday was by no means a slouch, as Washington & Lee came into the game as the top-ranked rushing team in the nation, averaging over a whopping 450 yards a game on the ground. To be successful, not only would Thomas More have to limit the rushing totals, but also score early in the game to force the Generals to play catch up.
“They’re the leading rushing team in the nation and it’s tough because we don’t really face that,” first-year head coach Regis Scafe said about the triple option that Washington & Lee focuses their offense around. “Our team runs the option too, but not like that. They give you all kinds of unbalanced formations so it posed a lot of problems. We had to kind of play generic defense and make sure we have a guy on the pitch. The quarterback hurt us, he’s a good player, but we held them under their average so that was good.”
The Saints have quite an offense too that features a wide variety of threats to opposing defenses. That was proven almost right away, as they racked up 275 first half yards.
“All week we talked about starting fast and we did,” Scafe said. “They run the triple option and don’t throw the ball very much so we wanted to get up on them and force them to try and change their game a little bit and it worked pretty well, I think.”
On their first possession, Saints running back CT Tarrant showed his rugged running style behind a large offensive line that opened up clear lanes that allowed four first downs and ended with a one-yard touchdown plunge into the end zone to take an early lead that they would not relinquish.
On defense, Thomas More faced a Washington & Lee offense that runs the triple option on nearly every play. The team looked prepared for the old-school offensive attack and made it hard for the Generals to generate yardage and especially points.
On their second possession, PAC Defensive Player of the Year Erik Butler made a strip tackle on quarterback Charlie Nelson from behind where he ripped the ball out and cradled it in his arms all in one motion. Thomas More was not able to capitalize on that turnover, but on the General’s next possession, Nelson threw a terrible interception to defensive back Austin Copeland who corralled the errant pass just inside the out-of-bounds line to give the Saints the ball into W&L territory.
The Thomas More offense was able to convert that turnover into points when senior quarterback Jensen Gebhardt found his fullback Cam Evans who sneaked out of the backfield and caught the pass at the pylon for only his second catch of the year. The score by the unlikely source goes to show the offensive diversity that the Saints can display against opposing defenses. In addition to Evans, scarcely used targets like Jeremy Duncan and Michael Bernecker also caught touchdown passes on the day.
“A lot of times, we don’t tell them who to throw to,” Scafe said. “We’ll have three or four receivers in the area, but it kind of depends on what the defense does. We design stuff to take advantage of what they’re going to be in with certain formations, but we’ll take shots every game. You can’t really call us just a running team. We throw the ball down the field and these guys do a great job.”
When the Generals got the ball back, they were able to run their option with enough success to get inside the Saints 10-yard line. Nelson looked good on the drive running it for a big gain on a keeper and then running back Connor Chess added another first down. Once inside scoring range, Nelson nearly threw another interception along the back of the end zone but went just out of bounds. When Washington & Lee went for a short field goal, the kick bounced off the right upright and fell no good.
The mistake would again damage the Generals’ chances of getting back in the game as TMC, aided by freshman running back Hjavier Pitts jitterbugged his way for 27-yards into W&L territory. Once inside the 10, Gebhardt rolled out to his right and threw a bullet to Goose Cohorn in the end zone for an easy score, putting Thomas More up 21-0.
The theme of Washington & Lee failing on offense followed by the Saints scoring continued through the first half when Butler got behind the line of scrimmage and took down the runner for a nine yard loss on third down to force a punt.
Backup quarterback Brenan Kuntz checked into the game on the following possession and promptly tossed a 44-yard lob on the run rolling to his right to Cohorn for another score, putting the Saints up 28-0 and already cruising towards the victory. Once the Saints scored again on their first second-half possession on an open slant route to Bernecker from 15-yards out, the game was essentially out of hand against a team that simply showed no passing game whatsoever.
Washington & Lee finished the game with only nine passing yards on the day.
The Generals did not give up on their running game, though and found some success late with that approach. W&L rattled off four big runs in a row, all for first downs before blasting it in to the end zone for their first score. They would go on to rush for two more scores in the second half, but they were never really able to make a game of it. Part of the reason why was the strong running of Tarrant behind his hogs up front.
“We have four seniors on our offensive line and we were bigger than them up front,” Scafe said. “They’re real tough and they move around a lot and we thought if we could just get a body on them we can move them on the line and that’s what we did. We ran the ball really effectively today and that was huge for us.”
Tarrant finished with 148 yards and the team totaled 306 yards on the ground. Once freshman Luke Zajac caught a nine-yard pass for the seventh Saints touchdown on the day, the score was 51-14 and the prospects of moving on into the postseason was effectively ensured.
Thomas More will travel to play Wabash next Saturday. The starting time to that game will be announced on Sunday, November 22. The quarterfinal match will feature two teams who are both 11-0 and considered national-championship contenders.
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor