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St. Thomas bests St. John's in first-ever football game at Target Field

University of St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso leads his team onto the field at Target Field as his team played Saint John's University in a NCAA Division III matchup, the first-ever football game played at Target Field on Saturday, Sept. 23. Ginger Pinson / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS—Donned in red and purple, 37,355 fans turned a sun-soaked ballpark into a cozy football field Saturday, Sept. 23, continuing to elevate a Division III rivalry, this time to heights rivaled only by members of college football's premier division.

For the 87th meeting between MIAC foes, St. John's and St. Thomas turned Target Field into an afternoon frenzy with more fans present than half of last year's college football bowls and more fans than the NFL's Los Angeles Chargers draw, as the Tommies continued their recent success over the Johnnies with a 20-17 victory.

St. Thomas withstood a late charge from the Johnnies to seal their seventh win in the past nine meetings between these teams, improving their all-time record against St. John's to 35-51-1.

They had to forgo a home game to make Saturday's matchup at Target Field possible and relished in the success of record-breaking numbers on a hot and humid day in Minneapolis. The previous Division III attendance record was 17,535. No Johnnie-Tommie game before Saturday had ever drawn more than 17,327.

"This was really unique to be able to have this here," St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. "I don't think anyone can deny that it was a phenomenal atmosphere and a great event. I think the response of 37,000 people who wanted to come to this game, and not for free either, but paying to come to this game. That speaks to the magnitude of this rivalry. Now if there's ever an opportunity down the road to play in a bigger venue whether it's next year, I don't know. I'm just really happy we did this and it's nice to be able to set a record that no one is ever going to be able to replicate until they move to a major venue. That was awesome."

Saturday's football game drew more fans than any Twins game this season since Opening Day brought more than 39,000 to the downtown ballpark.

And Saturday's spectators were treated to a good game that came down to a St. Thomas defensive stand in the fourth quarter that summed up the Tommies day.

They allowed just a single rushing yard on 20 St. John's attempts.

"That's like this," Caruso said holding his hands three feet apart for emphasis. "That's not a lot."

The Tommies' offense wasn't humming in a game between strong defenses, but they had the ball for more than 25 of the final 30 minutes.

"I don't know which is more unique," Caruso said comparing his team's time of possession stat with their rushing yards allowed. "I don't know if we've ever had the ball for more than 25 minutes out of 30."

Bryan Steinsapir, the Tommies' walk-on kicker from Chile hit 34- and 43-yard field goals to boost the St. Thomas lead to 20-10 and provide security before St. John's quarterback Jackson Erdmann connected on a 40-yard pass to Evan Clark in the fourth quarter that made it a one-possession game with six minutes remaining.

But St. Thomas quarterback Jacques Perra helped ice the game with a game-sealing quarterback sneak that gained a first down. The former Gopher finished with two touchdown passes and 230 yards as the Tommies outgained the Johnnies 390-151.

"I'm definitely going to remember the attendance record and being a part of the first football game at Target Field," Perra said. "The rivalry that we have with the Johnnies is something you can't really explain. It's hard to think about how it's that big of a rivalry. ... This is just another amazing Tommie-Johnnie game."

For St. Thomas (3-1), the win was more important than the spectacle that was a crowded ballpark, helping keep their playoff aspirations of alive. With a matching 3-1 record now, St. John's too likely needs to win out to nab another postseason berth.

"We're in playoff mode right now," Johnnies coach Gary Fasching said. "We've got to win the rest of our games to make the playoffs. We've done that for the last three years and we're in it again."

The first football game at Target Field—with another slated for 2019 between North Dakota State and Butler—continued to build on this still-growing rivalry, previously punctuated by SportsCenter's visit to Collegeville two years ago. Saturday, they added another marquee game to a long list of them.

"I thought it was electric," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. "We were honored to host this game and to see how it all came together, we were very pleased with the attendance record and it was a great atmosphere for the players and coaches. Most important, I think it was a deserved showcase for what this rivalry stands for and the history that it has."