Eli Wettstein made a 36-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter and Brett Kasper tossed three long touchdowns to Sam Mentkowski as UW-Oshkosh created eight turnovers and never trailed en route to a thrilling 34-31 victory over University of St. Thomas (Minn.) during the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship on Saturday (Dec. 3) in St. Paul, Minn.
Wettstein's eventual game-winning kick split the uprights with 2:30 remaining, and University of St. Thomas committed turnovers during its final two drives. UW-Oshkosh's Johnny Eagan collected his third interception of the contest to thwart a Tommie drive in Titan territory with just over one minute left, and Justin Watson recovered a fumble by University of St. Thomas on the final play of the game at the Tommies' 12-yard line.
UW-Oshkosh, which has trailed for less than 12 minutes the entire season, scored a touchdown on the game's opening possession and extended its lead to 24-7 lead over University of St. Thomas early in the second quarter.
University of St. Thomas, which had its 19-game home winning streak snapped, knotted the score at 24 late in the third period, and the teams traded fourth-quarter touchdowns before Wettstein's decisive field goal.
UW-Oshkosh (12-1), ranked fourth in the nation by D3football.com, advances to the national semifinals for the second time in five seasons. The Titans, who reached the quarterfinal round last season, also made the semifinal round in their playoff debut in 2012.
The Titans will host sixth-ranked John Carroll University (Ohio) next Saturday (Dec. 10). John Carroll University (12-1), which lost a 33-14 decision to UW-Oshkosh in this year's season opener, reached the semifinal round for the second time in program history and first since 2002 with a 31-14 win at UW-Whitewater (12-1).
Next Saturday's other semifinal will feature top-ranked University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) (13-0) hosting seventh-ranked and defending national champion University of Mount Union (Ohio) (12-1).
The semifinal winners will meet in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16 in Salem, Va.
UW-Oshkosh held a 406-362 advantage in total yards against third-ranked University of St. Thomas, including 237-158 passing. The Titans, who avenged a 28-14 loss to the Tommies in the 2012 NCAA semifinals, did not commit a turnover and owned a 33:46 to 26:14 advantage in time of possession.
University of St. Thomas (12-1), the first team to out-gain the Titans on the ground (204-169) this season, committed just one penalty for 10 yards but threw five interceptions and lost three fumbles. The Tommies were the national runners-up a year ago.
Kasper completed 13 of 26 passes for 237 yards, including scoring strikes of 46, 38 and 32 yards to Mentkowski.
Mentkowski finished the game with season-best totals of seven catches for 184 yards to go along with a career-high three scores.
Dylan Hecker and Devon Linzenmeyer paced the UW-Oshkosh rushing attack with 72 and 71 yards, respectively. Hecker added his 16th rushing touchdown of the season while Linzenmeyer averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
Eagan spearheaded the Titan defense with 10 tackles, including nine solo, while increasing his team-leading interception total to eight.
Cole Yoder recorded 10 tackles for the Titans, who also received nine stops from Reese Dziedzic, one sack and one fumble recovery from Jon Kallas, and one fumble recovery and one interception from Watson. AJ Plewa also registered an interception for UW-Oshkosh while Jake Thein had one fumble recovery.
UW-Oshkosh took the opening kickoff and marched 68 yards in nine plays, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run by Hecker on fourth-and-goal. The scoring drive was aided by a 23-yard run from Hecker and a 21-yard pass from Kasper to Hecker.
The Tommies responded with a long opening possession of their own, spanning 64 yards on eight plays and tying the score at 7 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Alex Fenske to Matt Christenson – his only catch of the game – with 6:05 left in the first quarter.
The Titans reclaimed a 14-7 advantage on a 46-yard scoring strike from Kasper to Mentkowski that capped a six-play, 79-yard drive.
On the first play of the ensuing Tommie possession, Eagan intercepted a Fenske pass at the University of St. Thomas 38-yard line, and Kasper connected Mentkowski for a touchdown pass on the following play. The extra point conversion by Wettstein gave UW-Oshkosh a 21-7 lead as the Titans scored 14 points in a span of 19 seconds.
The next two University of St. Thomas possessions also ended with turnovers as Eagan intercepted his second Fenske pass on the Tommies' third drive of the contest, and Kallas recovered a fumble by Fenske at the 12:21 mark of the second quarter.
UW-Oshkosh turned the Kallas fumble recovery into points as Wettstein drilled a 36-yard field goal for a 24-7 lead with 11:10 left in the second period.
The Tommies cut their deficit to 24-10 on a 23-yard field goal from Bryan Stensapir with just under nine minutes remaining before intermission. A 41-yard pass from Fenske to Nick Waldvogel advanced the ball to the UW-Oshkosh 8-yard line, but the Titans forced an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the 6.
Following a UW-Oshkosh punt, the Tommies converted a third-and-7 with a 10-yard pass from Fenske to Waldvogel down to the Titan 35-yard line. However, University of St. Thomas running back Tucker Trettel fumbled on the next play after a hit from Marcus Senn, and Thein emerged with the recovery.
University of St. Thomas forced another UW-Oshkosh punt and received the ball at its own 35-yard line with 2:26 left in the first half. Tommies running back Josh Parks rushed for 29 yards to the Titan 26-yard line, but Fenske tossed his third interception of the opening half three plays later as AJ Plewa snared the wayward pass at the UW-Oshkosh 10 to preserve the Titans' 24-10 lead at intermission.
The teams exchanged punts on the first four drives of the second half before the Tommies continued their comeback attempt with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Fenske to Jackson Hull on the first play of a possession that was set up by a 22-yard punt return by Waldvogel. Hull's touchdown grab was his lone reception of the game.
University of St. Thomas' Ryan Winter then blocked a punt by Turner Geisthardt, collected the loose ball and ran 30 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 24 with 4:34 to go in the third quarter.
After the sixth consecutive punt by UW-Oshkosh, the Tommies were driving for the go-ahead score, but Watson intercepted a Fenske pass at the Titan 17-yard line with 50 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Following a punt by both teams, UW-Oshkosh reclaimed a 31-24 advantage on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Kasper to Mentkowski that capped a four-play, 44-yard drive with 8:36 remaining. Wettstein's final extra point of the contest was his program record-breaking 61st of the season.
University of St. Thomas answered quickly with a six-play, 65-yard possession that concluded with a 14-yard rushing score from Parks at the 6:02 mark. Parks also had runs of 13 and 20 yards during the equalizing drive.
UW-Oshkosh started the eventual game-winning drive at its own 25-yard line. On third-and-11 from the Titan 24-yard line, Linzenmeyer ran for 36 yards to the Tommies' 40. Facing a third-and-7 from the University of St. Thomas 37-yard line, Kasper connected with Mentkowski for a 16-yard pass play. The Tommies limited Hecker to a 5-yard gain on third-and-13 from the 24-yard line and, following a timeout by University of St. Thomas, Wettstein nailed his 36-yard kick down the middle.
The Tommies commenced their next possession at their own 17-yard line with 2:24 remaining. A pass interference penalty on the fourth ply of the drive gave University of St. Thomas a first down at its own 40-yard line, but Eagan intercepted Fenske for the third time of the game on the following play.
University of St. Thomas forced a punt after three UW-Oshkosh plays and received the ball at its own 10-yard line with no timeouts and seven seconds to play. Following an incompletion on first down, Fenske connected with Luke Iverson on a 2-yard pass. Iverson then attempted to lateral to a teammate, but Watson snagged the ball out of midair and went to the ground as time expired.
Fenske, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference's Most Valuable Player, finished the contest 13 of 26 passing for 158 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions. He entered the game with 26 touchdown passes and four interceptions while ranking second nationally with 16.81 yards per completion and 10th with a 169.2 passing efficiency rating.
Parks had 21 carries for 152 yards and one touchdown for the Tommies while Trettel added 15 rushes for 66 yards, and Waldvogel led University of St. Thomas with six receptions for 91 yards.
The Tommies' Ben Celichowski had a game-high 12 tackles. Jesse Addo recorded nine stops, including one sack, for University of St. Thomas while Adam Kraft and Chris Fondakowski had eight and seven tackles, respectively.
University of St. Thomas, which lost for just the fourth time in its past 61 home games, had won 13 consecutive NCAA postseason contests held in St. Paul.
The Tommies, whose 10.5 points allowed per game ranked second in the country, yielded their highest point total of the season. University of St. Thomas also listed third nationally by scoring 48.4 points per contest.
UW-Oshkosh, which owns an 8-2 record in its three NCAA playoff appearances, had seven offensive plays longer than 20 yards while the Titan defense yielded a season-high five plays of at least 20 yards to the Tommies. UW-Oshkosh had not ceded a 20-yard run all season until Parks had three carries for at least 20 yards on Saturday.
UW-Oshkosh has won three of the five meetings with University of St. Thomas. The Titans won by scores of 23-21 in 1968 and 34-20 in 1969. The Tommies won the first meeting, 67-0, in 1914.