Hobart, St. Thomas use similar formula

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St. Thomas has been banged up on offense but its defense has led the way.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

By Andrew Lovell

The similarities are striking, and yet, so too are the differences.

No. 7 Hobart and No. 4 St. Thomas both implement a run-first, I-back offense ranking in the top 25 in the country. Both teams boast stout defenses that rank in the top 15 nationally in yards allowed. And both enter Saturday's NCAA third-round matchup with identical 12-0 records.

But don't be fooled -- the home-field and experience advantages lie squarely with St. Thomas. The Tommies are 32-2 over the past five seasons at O'Shaughnessy Stadium, the site of Saturday's game. Over the past four seasons, St. Thomas is 47-4 overall. Saturday will also mark the team's 13th playoff game in the past four seasons.

By comparison, Hobart will be playing in just its fourth playoff game over that span. The Statesmen have never traveled to Minnesota for a game. The caliber of opponent -- St. Thomas has won the last three conference titles in the MIAC, considered one of the elite leagues in Division III football -- is unlike anything Hobart has seen, particularly in a down season for the Liberty League this year.

"Honestly, I think their offense is very, very good," Hobart coach Mike Cragg said, "but I think their defense is even better. They are big, they are strong and they swarm like crazy. It'll be tough for our offense."

Hobart has defeated Washington and Lee and Wittenberg, respectively, in the first two rounds of the playoffs by a combined score of 73-30. The Statesmen haven't changed their blueprint -- they still pound the ball on offense and shut down the run on defense. It's worked all season, and the playoffs have been no different.

St. Thomas, on the other hand, got a stiff test from Elmhurst in the second round after dispatching St. Norbert with relative ease in the opening round. The Bluejays jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter before the Tommies rallied for the 24-17 win.

"There have been games where we come out and we're up 49-0 at halftime and that's great," Caruso said. "But there's games where we come out like Saturday and [we're down] 14-0 and our guys don't panic."

Caruso calls his team "dynamic," but not because of athletic playmakers or big-time victories (of which the Tommies have plenty of both). Rather, it's his team's ability to win games in any and every fashion that drives Caruso to use the "dynamic" label.

When Caruso took over in 2008, he inherited a team that had won 12 games total from 2005 to 2007, a win total the team has reached in each of the past three seasons. The turnaround was swift and, Caruso insists, unplanned.

"The intention was not to turn this program [around] quickly, it was to do so on a strong foundation," Caruso said. "The fact that it did turn so quickly I think is less a function of who the coach is and more a function of the type of player that we get."

Make no mistake, the Tommies get superb players -- sophomore quarterback Matt O'Connell, junior defensive lineman Riley Dombek and senior defensive lineman Ayo Idowu are just a few that immediately come to mind -- but it's the attitude Caruso and his staff instill in these talented players that helps them become "dynamic."

"We say quite often that we win some games because of our arms and our legs, but we win far more because of our minds and our hearts, and I believe that's true," Caruso said.

Just a sophomore, Hobart defensive end Tyre Coleman has 48 and a half career tackles for loss and 29 and a half sacks.
Hobart athletics photo 

Hobart, as similar as it may seem to St. Thomas, is not yet on the same level.

"I would love to sit here and say 'yes' and 'we're there,' but when it's your first time there, it's so hard to be able to say," Cragg said. "After this game, if we're able to win this, then I would say that maybe we truly can compete with all those great teams, those top three or four or five teams in Division III."

Cragg, of course, means teams such as Mount Union, UW-Whitewater (this season notwithstanding), Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield and St. Thomas. Teams that, year in and year out, make deep runs in the playoffs. Could the Statesmen be on the cusp of joining that group? Of course. But no one will know for sure until about 2015. One great season does not make a powerhouse.

A win against St. Thomas would stand as a pivotal turning point and program-defining moment. For it to become a reality, the Statesmen will have to control the game on the ground. Hobart's rushing attack is led by junior Steven Webb (1,094 yards, 11 TDs) and senior Bobby Dougherty (985 yards, 19 TDs), but the unsung heroes have been the offensive linemen.

What was once an area of concern -- Hobart returned just one of its top seven linemen from last season in senior left guard Art Garvey -- has steadily become an area of strength over the course of the season. But this group will get its toughest test Saturday when it faces off against what Cragg called the best front seven the team has seen all year.

Idowu and Dombek are dominant players up front on the line, while junior outside linebackers Tremayn Williams and Harry Pitera routinely make plays off the edge. The Tommies feature a 30-stack defense with twists up front and zone-based coverage in the secondary. The Statesmen generally employ a base 4-4 defense.

Hobart's defense, led by sophomore defensive end Tyre Coleman and junior linebacker Devin Worthington, will have its hands full against St. Thomas' run-oriented attack. Freshman Brenton Braddock (914 yards, 12 TDs) is the team's top rusher, but the Tommies have six other players with at least 100 yards rushing, including O'Connell (719 yards). O'Connell is just as dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm, and can do damage on naked bootlegs, keepers and sweeps.

Hobart senior quarterback Nick Strang could be the wild card that decides the outcome of the game. If St. Thomas has success in slowing down Webb and Dougherty, Strang would likely have to step up in the passing game. Strang has been consistent all season, but has rarely been called on to win games on his own.

St. Thomas enters the game as the favorite. Hobart, after all, faces the unfamiliar challenge of flying and organizing hotel rooms, meals, practice time, etc. But good, fundamental football usually travels well. The Statesmen deserve this shot.

"To play football in December, you know some good things have happened for you," Cragg said.

Caruso has his own way looking at things. To him, it's about the process, not the results. And so far, the process is getting results.

"I understand that we don't control winning and losing, and I understand that there's a lot of Type-A personalities in coaching that think I'm crazy," Caruso said. "I firmly believe that we control how hard we work, how long we work for and how tightly we stay together. The wins and whatever that comes is simply a byproduct of that. We don't even talk about [a national title], we just talk about putting in the work. And you know what? It seems to be serving us pretty well."