- Associated Press - Friday, September 22, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - One of the longest-running rivalries in small college football has reached major league status.

The 87th edition of the St. John’s-St. Thomas game will be played on Saturday at Target Field, and more than 35,000 tickets have already been sold. With the Twins making their push for the baseball playoffs this weekend on the road, the Johnnies and the Tommies will take their place for an afternoon and more than double the previous NCAA Division III attendance record in the process.

No, Pope Francis, is not expected to be there.

Just about everybody else of significance to these two Catholic schools in Minnesota probably will be.

“With the buzz around town and the buzz on campus, that’s the only thing people are talking about,” St. John’s coach Gary Fasching said.

Football coaches are rarely fond of sideshows, perfecting the familiar one-game-at-a-time and all-games-count-the-same refrains to try to prevent external hype from affecting player performance with such a short schedule compared to the other team sports. Ignoring the magnitude of this particularly matchup would be a failure to fully relish a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“If we could do this every single week for the rest of my career, sign me up right now,” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. “It has been an absolute blast, and it would never, ever get old. Are there extra media requests? Yes. Are there extra ticket requests? Sure. But at the end of the day if you can’t get genuinely excited about this opportunity, then what are we doing coaching this sport?”

Because figures are self-reported, the NCAA does not officially track attendance records. According to the website d3football.com , the biggest Division III crowd was last season when Wisconsin-Oshkosh played at Wisconsin-Whitewater in front of 17,535 fans. The St. Thomas-St. John’s games in 2015, 2016 and 2010 rank second, third and fourth.

According to St. Thomas research, the crowd on Saturday will surpass those at 20 of the 40 bowl games at the FBS level last season.

The two teams first played on Thanksgiving Day in 1901, when a 16-year-old running back named Ignatius O’Shaughnessy helped lead St. John’s to a 16-0 victory over St. Thomas. About two months later, O’Shaughnessy was caught skipping a church service to drink beer in the woods surrounding the idyllic campus in rural central Minnesota and expelled from school.

On his train ride home to the Twin Cities area, he stopped at St. Thomas, ran into the school president, told him his story and was enrolled after impressing him with his honesty. Though he never played against the Johnnies, O’Shaughnessy went on to star for the Tommies.

He eventually struck it rich by founding an oil refinery in Oklahoma and amassed a fortune that helped fund all kinds of buildings on the St. Thomas campus, which is sits in a leafy section of the capital city of St. Paul near the Mississippi River. O’Shaughnessy gave St. Thomas more than $8.5 million for various projects, which would translate to more than $100 million in present-day dollars. He also donated to a football stadium expansion at St. John’s.

Storied history aside, the game this year would surely not draw as much attention if the two teams weren’t so strong. St. John’s is ranked sixth in both of the Division III polls, with St. Thomas coming in 10th and 11th respectively. The winner will have early control of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference race, in addition to regional bragging rights.

“I knew that there was an opportunity at St. Thomas to bring this program to a place it’s at now, on a national stage,” said Caruso, who is 101-16 in 10 seasons.

St. John’s leads the series 51-34-1, having won 16 of 17 meetings between 1993 and 2009 under coach John Gagliardi, the all-time NCAA leader in victories. St. Thomas has won six of the last eight, including three in a row. The Tommies lost to perennial power Mount Union in the national championship game in 2012 and 2015. The Johnnies claim four national titles, most recently in 2003. Gary Fasching, who once played under Gagliardi, is 40-9 in five seasons.

“Coach Caruso has done a great job of making that team a national contender each year. That’s just accelerated everything,” Fasching said. “A lot of their kids are kids we recruited. I’m sure they recruited a lot of the kids that are playing on our teams. There’s a lot of crossover there. You’ve got two really good universities, so I think there’s a certain amount of respect on each side.”


For more college football coverage: https://www.collegefootball.ap.org

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