Football fans, clad in either red or purple, crowded into restaurants around Target Field hours before the big game.
Fans who would later wave towels boasting their team colors and send rumbling cheers from the stands were enjoying the moments before one of college football’s most intense Division III rivalries kicked off …
… in a baseball stadium.
St. John’s University and the University of St. Thomas football teams faced each other on Sept. 23 on a big stage: Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins. The game marked the 87th installment of what’s commonly referred to as “Tommie-Johnnie,” as well as the first football game ever played at Target Field.
The teams have been Division III football powerhouses for years. A battle that started on Thanksgiving 106 years ago has become an important part of Minnesota’s local sports culture.
“The rivalry that we have between the Johnnies is something that you can’t really explain,” said St. Thomas quarterback Jacques Perra. “It’s hard to think about how it’s that big of a rivalry.”
In front of a record-breaking 37,355 people, the Tommies defeated St. John’s 20-17 for their seventh win in the past nine Tommie-Johnnie meetings.
Ayo Idowu is a veteran of Tommie-Johnnie games. One of the top defensive players for St. Thomas in recent years, Idowu played for the Tommies from 2008 to 2012.
“During warm ups you go out there and it sounds like a damn airport,” Idowu said about the crowd during his games against St. John’s in Collegeville, outside of St. Cloud. “When you are playing you don’t hear a damn thing except for the quarterback and your coaches, but sometimes when you just step back and smell the roses during a timeout, the ground is shaking.”
Idowu played at Woodbury High School, where his head coach, Beau LaBore, one of the greatest linebackers to play for the Johnnies, oriented Woodbury’s program around the traditions he had learned at St. John’s, according to Idowu.
“I was quite frankly sick of it after three years of high school,” Idowu said, laughing. “So when I decided to come to St. Thomas, I made it a point that I never lost to these guys. I probably played my best game all four years against St. John’s. That’s my personal vendetta.”
Doug Hennes, the vice president for government relations and special projects at St. Thomas, often covers football for Tommie Sports, the official website of St. Thomas athletics.
Hennes has been a Tommie fan since he was an undergraduate at St. Thomas in the 1970s. He remembers sitting in the stands with his uncle during his freshman year at St. Thomas.
It was a homecoming game on a Saturday night. St. Thomas won. His uncle was a Johnnie.
“The game has always been special,” Hennes said. “Even going back when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, this was the game that everybody always pointed to.”
Like Idowu, Hennes occasionally has a hard time containing his excitement.
“I try to be objective, neutral,” he said. “The old thing about no cheering in the press box, there is truth to that. But your heart’s still pumping a little bit.”
By the end of the game, players and coaches from both teams had recognized the milestone.
“I told our guys this is something you will probably remember for the rest of your life,” St. John’s head coach Gary Fasching said. “… They probably don’t realize that until after the game.”
Glenn Caruso is Fasching’s counterpart as the St. Thomas head coach. Caruso also noted the historical importance of the game’s location and its breaking of the Division III attendance record.
Division III schools—which don’t offer athletic scholarships—generally attract students who focus on academics more than sports. But St. Thomas and St. John’s manage to maintain top football teams year after year. Together, both fan bases more than doubled the previous Division III attendance record (17,535).
“It will be forever remembered as ‘The Target Field Game.’ I don’t think that’s going away. I mean, I still hear about the Cigar Bowl and that was 1949,” said a laughing Caruso, referencing the only New Year’s Day bowl game St. Thomas has ever played.
“This is going to be the ‘Target Field Game.’ To be able to etch your name in the proverbial stone that is a game like this is awesome.”
GAME BREAKDOWN: TOMMIES DEFEAT JOHNNIES 20-17
St. John’s took an early 3-0 lead in the first quarter, capitalizing on a St. Thomas muffed punt.
On the ensuing St. Thomas possession, an explosive passing attack led the Tommies on an 80-yard touchdown drive. The drive, which featured big completions from Tommies quarterback Jacques Perra, was punctuated by a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Christenson. That score gave St. Thomas a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The score remained the same for much of the second quarter until Perra and the St. Thomas passing game struck again with a play-action deep ball to wide receiver Gabe Green for a 61-yard touchdown.
Later in the quarter, just as it looked like St. Thomas might pull away early, St. John’s offense generated its biggest play of the day to that point, a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jackson Erdmann to junior tight end Jared Streit.
St. Thomas tacked on a field goal just before the end of the second half to extend its lead to 17-10 entering halftime.
The Tommies added another field goal in the third quarter to extend their lead to 20-10. But an interception in the St. John’s end zone kept the game within the Johnnies’ reach entering the fourth quarter.
It took nine minutes in the fourth quarter for St. John’s to claw back into the contest, when the Johnnies’ Erdmann connected with wide receiver Evan Clark for a 40-yard touchdown strike, trimming St. Thomas’ lead to 20-17 with 5 minutes, 59 seconds remaining.
The Johnnies got the ball back with more than 3 minutes left in the football game, but they quickly went four- and-out after another key stop by the Tommies defense. St. Thomas iced the game with a first down on the next drive and walked away with a 20-17 victory.
Despite St. John’s late comeback attempt, the St. Thomas defense was dominant. The Johnnies offense was held 0-for-11 on third-downs and totaled 1 rushing yard in the game.
Perra led the Tommies through the air with 230 passing yards and two touchdowns, while fullback Jeremy Molina did the heavy lifting on the ground with nine carries for 61 yards. Erdmann led the Johnnies with 127 passing yards and two touchdowns.