Dec. 4, 2009

By Wendell Maxey
Special to
Linfield College hosts St. Thomas (Minn.) in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals on Saturday at Maxwell Field, with one team moving a step closer to a national championship.
Fifth-ranked Linfield (11-0) defeated No. 7 Mary Hardin-Baylor, 53-21, in second round action last Saturday, while No. 10 St. Thomas (11-1) advanced to the quarterfinals for only the second time in school history following a 34-7 rout of Coe (Iowa).
Both the Wildcats and Tommies reached the quarterfinals with relative ease after initial success – Linfield beat Cal Lutheran and St. Thomas knocked off Monmouth (IL). Now, neither Linfield nor St. Thomas is taking each other lightly.
“They are unbelievable. Not only is it a good team in our investigation of them, but it’s an unbelievable program,” said St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso of the Linfield Wildcats. “They’ve been there and they’ve done that. They have all the pieces in place and they have some unbelievable athletes on the field on both sides of the ball. Their offense garners a lot of notoriety and deservedly so.”
After falling behind 14-3 to Mary Hardin-Baylor and despite being held to just 129 yards of total offense, the Wildcats scored 37 straight points on their way to a convincing home field edge in a memorable third quarter. Linfield’s defensive end Eric Hedin forced three fumbles and returned one for a touchdown, while quarterback Aaron Boehme passed for three scores and ran for another, completing 20-of-32 passes for 260 yards.
By the end of the third quarter, the Wildcats had built a 40-14 lead over UMHB.
Boehme tossed a 70-yard touchdown to Trevor Patterson with less than five minutes left. Patterson had a career day, catching 11 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown.
Much like Linfield though, St. Thomas’ defense was the difference maker in their second-round victory over Coe.
“They are a really solid football team,” admitted Linfield head coach Joseph Smith. “They really don’t have any weaknesses. They do a good job of controlling the football and not making mistakes. That’s a good combination for playoff football. They are very talented in terms of physicality, speed and great size. They present a real challenge for us.”
The Tommie defense forced three interceptions – including two in the second half by Brady Ervin – and eight sacks from eight different players, while running back Ben Wartman handled the scoring load. He rushed 34 times for 236 yards.
Wartman’s longest run of the day came right before the half, a 46-yard touchdown to give UST a 24-7 halftime lead.  The junior running back has now surpassed 100 rushing yards in 18 of his last 20 games and UST is 17-1 when he eclipses the century mark.
Since moving to running back last season, Wartman now has 2,995 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns. His 23 TDs in 12 games this season broke Gary Trettel's 19-year-old school record of 22 set in 12 games in 1990.
“What I like about Ben is he’s an every down player. I don’t feel like I have to put him in a good situation on every single snap in order for him to be successful,” Caruso said of Wartman. “He’s a bit of a throwback. He may not look pretty but he’s productive.
“What we are doing best right now is we are playing well collectively. That may sound cliché as all get out, but the last month-and-a-half we’ve really started to pick each other up.”
Thanks to Wartman and quarterback Greg Morse, St. Thomas racked up 499 total yards (out-rushing Coe by a margin of 303-2) and scored the game's final 24 points. Morse made his first start since Oct. 24 and threw for two touchdowns on 11-of-16 passing for 196 yards with no interceptions. With the win over the Kohawks, the Tommies have outscored their last five opponents 65-7 in the second half. Yet that’s not their most impressive stat.
St. Thomas has now played 13 consecutive quarters without committing a turnover, and in the last five games, the UST defense has collected 15 turnovers and 16 sacks while only allowing seven touchdowns.
Linfield has been impressive in its own right over the years. The Wildcats won the 2004 Division III football championship and currently own the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons (54) in all of college football.
“I really like the character of this team,” Smith explained. “Guys are working hard, so we’re just trying to prepare the best we can.”