St. John’s safety Max Jackson returns a fumble 99 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter of the Johnnies’ win over St. Thomas on Saturday. Credit: Jennifer McNelly – Saint John’s University
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — The temperature was in the upper 40s, the sun kept trying to peek through, trees in the distance were sporting their fall hues of orange, red and yellow, the smell of burgers on the grill was abundant and rivals ranked in the top 10 were competing on the gridiron in front of an overflow crowd in the bowl of Clemens Stadium.
Yet something was missing on a splendid Saturday: John Gagliardi.
The winningest coach in college football history — with 489 victories, including 465 of them and four national championships in 60 years as coach at St. John’s — died Oct. 7 at age 91.
On Saturday, Gagliardi would have appreciated the Johnnies’ continued offensive dominance in front of 16,922 fans.
Jackson Erdmann completed 28 of 53 passes for a school-record 470 yards and three touchdowns and Will Gillach had 14 receptions for a school-record 256 receiving yards and two scores to lead St. John’s to a 40-20 win over St. Thomas. The win ended a four-game slide against the Tommies and returned the Holy Grail traveling trophy to central Minnesota.
Max Jackson returned a fourth-quarter fumble 99 yards to ice it for the Johnnies (6-0, 5-0 MIAC).
“I can’t even begin to describe how special this is,” said Erdmann. “For the legacy of John Gagliardi … and for all of us on this team, just a huge game.”
“They played with a fierce attitude; they played for John and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” added St. John’s coach Gary Fasching. “Our seniors were focused all week. They understood we’ve got to be patient, we got to be even-keeled. … They did a great job of keeping it that way.”
Gagliardi, best described as gracious by those who knew him well, did things his way. Among his many rules: players called him “John,” not “Coach,” no-tackling practices that lasted no more than 90 minutes, and a no-cut policy which often soared the number of Johnnies in uniform well into triple digits.
Saturday’s game program listed 172 players on the Johnnies roster. A “JOHN” decal was on each helmet.
“Without John, who knows where this place would be, where I would be,” Gillach said.
“To do this for not only for John, but for the 5,000 people that he coached, it’s something special.”
Josh Parks rushed for 256 yards and three touchdowns and Jacques Perra threw for 339 yards but tossed five interceptions for St. Thomas (5-1, 3-1), which entered ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division III and had won 31 consecutive conference games since an October 2014 loss at Bethel.
St. Thomas, which averaged 61.2 points in its first five games, finished with 610 yards of offense but also lost two fumbles.
No. 7 St. John’s had 539 yards of offense but turned the ball over just three times. The Johnnies averaged 43.4 points in their first five games.
“It’s two really good football teams playing in a rivalry,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. “Whether this was a rival game or not, it was a really good effort by them.”
“They’ve obviously been preparing the first five weeks for this like we have,” Perra added. “They just had a better game plan than we had, showed it on the field.”
Parks went 60 yards to get the Tommies within 19-14 early in the third, but Erdmann and Gillach hooked up on a 31-yard touchdown reception 61 seconds later and added a 14-yard touchdown late in the quarter to make it 33-14.
“Our game plan was to attack them offensively through the air, and they couldn’t stop it,” Erdmann said. “Kept going the whole way down the field over and over again. … I was even like picking and choosing whoever had the one-on-one matchup. I have all the faith in the world in all my guys.”
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Jackson proved that today,” Gillach said.
Parks scored from the 1 late in the third and was about to again in the fourth but fumbled when hit by Alex Sais.
Jackson scooped the ball up and dashed down the sideline past the St. John’s bench for the game’s final points.
“I thought he was down for a couple seconds in my eye,” Perra said. “It’s a six-point game if he gets in there.”
Erdmann looked skyward for extra help before the play.
“I was just like, ‘Hey John, help us out here,’ ” he said.
Kurt Ramler had the previous St. John’s passing record, throwing for 435 yards in a 1996 game. Erdmann was 17 of 34 for 292 yards and a score in the first half. Gillach caught eight passes for 141 yards.
Kai Barber crossed the goal line head over heels thanks to an upending hit by Michael Franzese for an 11-yard score in the first quarter.
Kenneth Udoibok scored from the 1 for a 13-7 lead early in the second before Andrew VanErp broke two tackles for a 44-yard touchdown reception.
Parks scored on a 92-yard run on the Tommies’ second offensive play.
“We’re going to be judged on how we respond,” Caruso said.