|Austin Jochum takes down St. John's quarterback Jackson Erdmann at Target Field. He leads the team with five sacks, but 13 players have sacks and 28 players have tackles for loss on the UST defense.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com
By Josh Smith
It goes without saying, the St. Thomas offense is rolling. After all, the Tommies are coming off a 97-point performance.
But the UST defense has been performing well, too. And while the offense is racking up points, the D has been clamping down on the opposition, recording four shutouts on the season.
The defense’s success may be more impressive considering the number of talented players lost to graduation a year ago.
“The gaps that were left were huge. There’s no doubt,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso, referring to the loss of players such as Michael Alada, Jesse Addo, Anthony King-Foreman and Ryan Winter.
Caruso didn’t expect this year’s unit to immediately replace those players. But he and his staff felt like the defense could grow into a formidable unit. And they have. That growth has been facilitated by key leaders in the middle of the defense like inside linebackers Steve Harrell and Adam Brant and nose tackle Austin Jochum. However, that might not be obvious by looking through box scores.
“I can name a couple guys that really make us go. But none of the players have stats that are daunting, in any way shape or form,” Caruso said.
“The star of the defense is the defense,” the coach continued. “When great defense is being played, obviously it’s being played in unison with 11 people performing their responsibility to the best of their ability as one.”
Harrell oversees this selfless unit, calling the defensive plays on the field.
“When your voice is the one being heard in the huddle. You have the job of calling the play, but also making sure everyone is reset,” the senior linebacker said. “That leadership aspect of it is a big part.”
“He relays the calls coming in from the sideline, but he’s also very intuitive to adjust and tweak things,” Caruso added. “And many of our players are in that scenario. It’s a defense that I think is operating the way it’s operating because there’s a lot of investment and the kids have some freedoms and flexibilities to fit well together. And they’re doing that.”
Harrell credits the success of the unit to each player’s sense of accountability.
“Everyone is focused on doing their jobs 100 percent,” he said. “We all have high expectations of each other. But even greater than that, are the high expectations we have of ourselves.”
That accountability intensified following a Week 2 setback to UW-Stout, in which the Tommies lost their first non-conference game in Caruso’s tenure at St. Thomas.
“It turned out to be a really great thing for us to have a sense of that failure and learn from it,” Harrell said.
Since then, the UST defense has really clicked.
University of St. Thomas photo by Mark Brown
The Tommies followed up their 25-22 loss to UW-Stout with a shutout win over Carleton. Then they held rival St. John’s to 1-yard rushing in a 20-17 victory in front of 37,355 fans at Target Field.
“That was the first indicator we were moving in the right direction,” Caruso said. “But we still had things we needed to improve, in terms of our consistency throughout the game and from game to game.”
Two weeks later, St. Thomas shut out Concordia-Moorhead, 21-0, while preventing the Cobbers and their high-powered rushing attack from crossing midfield.
A week ago, the Tommies limited Gustavus Adolphus to 1 total yard of offense. And most recently, St. Thomas held St. Olaf to 9 rushing yards, en route to a 97-0 victory.
“Each week we take another step towards the way we want to play,” Caruso said.
“Stats aren’t what we focus on, but obviously it’s a tell of how we can play, or how we have played,” Harrell added. “As a defense, we do pride ourselves on stopping the run. That’s instilled into the culture of our defense.”
St. Thomas will be tasked with stopping the run again when the team opens postseason play against LeAnthony Reasnover and Eureka. Reasnover’s 1,834 rushing yards rank second in Division III and his 31 touchdowns lead the nation.
“It’s always tremendously exciting when you get a chance to play a team you’ve never played before,” Caruso said. “They have a sincere commitment to running the football. I love that about them. I think that’s refreshing nowadays.”
“Eureka has got some athletes,” Harrell agreed. “Our focus isn’t on an opponent though. It’s always on ourselves and what we can control.”
While St. Thomas feels its defense has grown week over week, Harrell and the rest of the defense believe there is still opportunities to get better.
“After each game, you watch film and you realize how many mistakes are made and how many things can still get fixed,” Harrell said. “We definitely haven’t reached out peak yet.”
Number of the week
5 – as in the number of sacks recorded by Isaiah Watkins during Pacific Lutheran’s 40-24 win over Lewis and Clark. Watkins led the team with 14 tackles and forced a fumble while contributing to the Lute’s nine sacks on the day.
Five is also the number of field goals booted by Redland’s Nathan Hierlihy. The Bulldogs’ kicker connected on five of six field goal attempts to help Redlands overcome a 14-point deficit and defeat Cal Lutheran, 21-17. Hierlihy also added five touchbacks on seven kickoffs and punted four times with an average of 45.3 yards.
Additionally, five is the number of touchdown passes tossed by UW-La Crosse’s Drew David to Nick Holcomb in a 56-7 win at UW-River Falls. The Eagles’ signal-caller finished the game with 410 yards passing, hooking up with his top wideout 11 times for 253 yards.
Finally, five is also the number of touchdowns scored by La Verne’s James Gonsalves. The running back carried 13 times, racking up 258 yards to go with his five scores, as the Leopards topped Whitter, 82-17.
The rest of the West
St. John’s limited Concordia-Moorhead to 112 rushing yards and intercepted Blake Kragnes twice to claim a 10-3 victory. … Chidubem Nnoli ran for 113 yards and two scores while Wyatt Smith threw three touchdown passes in Linfield’s 35-7 victory at Pacific. … Wartburg trailed by six at halftime, but Riley Brockway came to life in the second half, catching four touchdowns. He finished the game with nine receptions and 245 yards and the Knights defeated Nebraska Wesleyan, 41-20. … Scott Skornicka registered two of UW-Oshkosh’s four sacks and the defense generated three takeaways in a 31-0 shutout at UW-Stout. … Brad Letney rushed for 138 yards and three touchdowns and added 162 passing yards and a score to push Luther past Loras, 35-21. … Pomona-Pitzer edged Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in overtime, 29-28, after Karter Odermann hit Kevin Masini for a 22-yard touchdown and then threw the 2-point conversion pass to David Berkinsky. … Grant Schroeder threw touchdown passes to Bran Lander and James Nguyen while George Fox’s defense racked up seven quarterback sacks to lead the Bruins to a 21-7 win at Puget Sound. … Mark Johnson secured 16 receptions, netting 275 receiving yards and three touchdowns, to power UW-Platteville past UW-Stevens Point, 34-16. … Gustavus Adolphus outgained Carleton, 544-150, during a 52-0 shutout. Offensively, Michael Veldman threw four touchdown passes and Karim Ortiz rushed for 126 yards and two scores. … Ian Kolste completed 20-of-29 passes for 264 yards and five touchdowns, guiding Whitworth to a 57-24 win over Willamette. … Kyle Gritsch caught nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, leading Central past Dubuque, 38-21. … Levi Duininck only had five carries, but he found the end zone three times during Bethel’s 54-14 win over Hamline. … UW-Whitewater tailback Drew Patterson carried the ball 20 times for 173 yards and three touchdown to lift the Warhawks to a 36-3 win over UW-Eau Claire. … Buena Vista scored 19 unanswered points to pull within two, but Coe’s Erick Fletcher intercepted the would-be tying 2-point conversion past to help the Kohawks survive, 35-33.
Eight teams from the West Region were ranked in the final regular season Top 25 poll.
UW-Oshkosh retained its No. 3 ranking, but picked up two first place votes.
Meanwhile St. Thomas, St. John’s and Linfield all remained steady at Nos. 4, 6 and 8, respectively.
Wartburg moved up one spot to No. 17 while Concordia-Moorhead slipped one position to No. 20. UW-Whitewater and UW-La Crosse held their spots at Nos. 23 and 24, respectively.