/playoffs/2012/secret-of-the-tommies-success

The secret of the Tommies' success

More news about: St. Thomas
Ayo Idowu and the St. Thomas defense have had a great deal of success against the pass, but it starts against the run.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

By Jason Bailey
D3sports.com
 

It’s a menace. A scourge. A terror.

But overcome your fears of interceptions, fumbles and the occasional safety.

The leading cause of death among football drives is third down.

Defensive success on third downs requires opposing skillsets, from plugging gaps on third-and-short to stifling the quarterback on third-and-long. St. Thomas senior defensive end Ayo Idowu fills both roles admirably, the perfect symbol for one of the nation’s top defenses.

“Third down is our fourth down,” Idowu said. “It means we want an automatic punt.”

If not automatic, it’s been pretty close. St. Thomas extinguishes drives almost three-quarters of the time an opponent faces third down, ranking sixth nationally after finishing first last season.

The resolute defense has kept impressive streaks alive in 2012 despite the graduation of an all-American running back and wide receiver. St. Thomas rides a 16-game home winning streak into its second consecutive national semifinal appearance after reaching the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2009. Last season ended with a 20-0 loss at eventual champion UW-Whitewater.

Advancing to this year’s Stagg Bowl requires stopping a UW-Oshkosh (13-0, 8-0 WIAC) offense that averages almost 40 points per game behind superstar quarterback Nate Wara. But St. Thomas (13-0, 8-0 MIAC) has defeated all-American quarterbacks in the playoffs before, making Monmouth’s Alex Tanney look mortal in 2011 and corralling Linfield’s Aaron Boehme in 2010.

It’s a credit to the team’s run defense, says St. Thomas defensive coordinator Walter Kuchinski.

Yes, its run defense.

“You are taking one portion of their game out completely,” Kuchinski said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the NFL, Division I, Division III, high school. It doesn’t matter. It’s really, really hard to find quarterbacks who can carry the load for them every single play.”

Eliminating the running game makes teams one-dimensional, and the Tommies are ranked 10th nationally with 80.85 rushing yards allowed per game. St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said limiting success on first and second down also shrinks the offensive playbook on third down.

The defense takes advantage with a flummoxing 3-4 scheme that disguises pressure from the linebackers and uses zone coverage in the secondary. It’s never easy to pinpoint exactly what St. Thomas is planning. The variety of personnel packages used on third down runs a mix of blitzes and coverages. Angles are key. It’s not always about overwhelming with extra rushers.

“This playbook is very thick,” Idowu said. “It’s kind of nice because we have a lot of bullets in our gun we can shoot off at any time. As fun as it is, you have to be disciplined. If one guy gets out of his gap in the zone blitz, the quarterback is running for 50 or throwing a bomb over the top.”

Kuchinski said the defensive coaches find efficient ways to attack different protection schemes, forcing the offense to make tough choices. Should they keep in tight ends and running backs to block while limiting the number of downfield routes — and escape valves — for the quarterback?

That storehouse of tactical advantages is a big reason why St. Thomas is ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense at 14.15 points per game. The team has allowed 10 or fewer points 21 times in the last three seasons, including last week’s 47-7 quarterfinal rout of undefeated Hobart.

St. Thomas has saved some of its stingiest performances for the biggest stage. Hobart (2-of-13) and St. Norbert (1-of-13) went nowhere on third down this postseason, and St. Scholastica (1-of-12) and St. John Fisher (1-of-13) had similar problems converting during the 2011 playoffs.

Bethel coach Steve Johnson is familiar with the suffocating Tommies defense, which limited his Royals to 31 rushing yards and 1-of-11 on third down during a 37-0 loss in the regular season.

Chinni Oji
Chinni Oji moved from cornerback to safety this season and has anchored the St. Thomas secondary.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com 

“They get a lot of three-and-outs,” Johnson said. “And then you’re behind and the offense feels like they have to leave their gameplan to catch up. And it kind of gets a little bit overwhelming.

“We would like to wear on people. But if you don’t get first downs, you don’t wear on anybody.”

Such fortitude is part of institutional pride at St. Thomas. Home games begin with a defensive cavalcade on what is believed to be the largest video board in Division III, installed before the season. Before any offensive player receives his cameo, fans watch a dominating sack-interception-blocked punt-interception-sack sequence.

Once the game begins, Idowu starts creating new highlights.

He leads the MIAC with 15 tackles for loss, twice made the D3football Team of the Week and returned a fumble 86 yards for the decisive touchdown in a second-round comeback victory over Elmhurst. Idowu watches YouTube before games for inspiration from Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, whose NFL jerseys hang in his room.

“A lot of guys have a great first step. But I think (Idowu) has a great first step after contact, and that’s a huge difference,” Caruso said. “He does a great job with his upper body, his hands, and does things that occupy the offensive lineman so his feet can work their magic.”

Although Idowu clearly stands out — “He’s ridiculous and there’s not an answer for him,” Johnson says — it’s actually not cliche to say the Tommies play team defense. 

St. Thomas placed seven defensive starters on the MIAC’s all-conference first team and Idowu, junior outside linebacker Tremayne Williams and senior safety Chinni Oji made the All-West Region Second Team. Seven players have at least three sacks and nobody has 50 tackles.

“Our goal is to play as a single group,” Oji said. “Everyone just has to stay humble.”

Oji has been an example of selflessness, moving from cornerback to free safety midseason because of injuries in the secondary. He plays inside the box more often, keeping opponents wary with occasional blitzes and an aggressive attitude that extends to the entire defense.

Junior defensive end Riley Dombek and junior outside linebacker Harry Pitera are threats, and senior inside linebacker Mike Valesano and senior cornerback Ryan Deitz rejoined the swarm after missing last season with injuries. It makes life difficult for quarterbacks on third-and-long.  

“It’s not easy to fit a perfectly-thrown ball in there when you are getting hit in about 2.4 seconds,” Kuchinski said. “It’s hard to throw the ball to the sticks at the right time when you have a cornerback staring you in the eyes waiting for the football.”

The outcome is almost predictable at this point.

An incompletion. The referee administering last rites with his solemnly closed fist.

Fourth down.

Oct. 13: All times Eastern
Final
Bridgewater State 24, at Mass-Dartmouth 22
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at UW-Whitewater 21, UW-La Crosse 14
Video Box Score Recap
Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
Salve Regina 45, at Nichols 10
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Final
Mount Ida 14, at Dean 7
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Final
at Thomas More 59, Waynesburg 7
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Final
at Maine Maritime 34, Coast Guard 16
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Final
at Finlandia 27, Trinity Bible 21
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Final
Hamilton 28, at Bowdoin 7
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Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Olivet 47, Albion 26
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Final
at Wesleyan 41, Bates 23
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Final
Union 27, at Rochester 0
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Final
Amherst 40, at Colby 7
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Final
at Western New England 41, Endicott 14
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Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
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Final - OT
at Plymouth State 16, Framingham State 13
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Final
at RPI 27, Ithaca 14
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Final
Hobart 49, at Hartwick 27
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Final
at Ferrum 34, LaGrange 20
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Final
at Carnegie Mellon 42, Geneva 27
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Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
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Final
DePauw 26, at Denison 17
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Final
at Trine 42, Kalamazoo 7
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Final
at Washington and Lee 47, Guilford 26
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Final
at Husson 49, Castleton 0
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Final
Gallaudet 35, at Alfred State 19
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Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
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Final
Brevard 41, at Methodist 17
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Final
at Lebanon Valley 31, Stevenson 24
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
Buffalo State 24, at St. Lawrence 21
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Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
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Final
at Randolph-Macon 52, Emory and Henry 29
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Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
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Final
at Hampden-Sydney 58, Apprentice 28
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Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
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Final
at N.C. Wesleyan 45, Greensboro 0
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Final
at Westminster (Pa.) 49, Grove City 27
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Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
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Final
at Westminster (Mo.) 56, Crown 15
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 29, Iowa Wesleyan 7
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at Knox 56, Grinnell 14
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Final
at Widener 31, Lycoming 17
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Final
Trinity (Conn.) 23, at Tufts 16
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Final
at Mount St. Joseph 66, Earlham 7
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Final - 2OT
Ohio Northern 27, at John Carroll 20
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Final
Baldwin Wallace 23, at Muskingum 20
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Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
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Final
Rose-Hulman 44, at Manchester 13
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Final
at Hanover 31, Bluffton 28
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Final
Defiance 45, at Anderson 0
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Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
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Final
Hiram 62, at Kenyon 56
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Final
Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
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Final
Williams 27, at Middlebury 26
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Final
at Westfield State 33, Fitchburg State 21
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Final
Marietta 43, at Wilmington 33
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at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
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Final
Curry 40, at Becker 0
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Final
TCNJ 20, at Rowan 14
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Final
at SUNY-Maritime 51, Anna Maria 15
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Final
Salisbury 28, at Montclair State 10
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Final
at Huntingdon 28, Maryville (Tenn.) 16
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Final
at Austin 33, Millsaps 19
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
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Final
at Washington U. 55, Buena Vista 20
Video Video Box Score Recap
Final
Alma 27, at Aurora 19
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Final
at Rockford 29, Concordia-Chicago 14
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Final
Wisconsin Lutheran 22, at Concordia (Wis.) 19
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Final
at Lakeland 57, Benedictine 21
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Final
at St. Norbert 10, Chicago 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
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Final
St. Olaf 22, at Augsburg 20
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Final
Bethel 24, at Gustavus Adolphus 3
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Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Eureka 30, Greenville 19
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Final
Centre 27, at Trinity (Texas) 21
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Final
Dubuque 42, at Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Final
Central 30, at Coe 19
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Final
Lake Forest 56, at Cornell 28
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Final
at Carthage 31, Elmhurst 8
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Millikin 28, at Augustana 27
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Ripon 52, at Beloit 28
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Final
MacMurray 49, at Minnesota-Morris 13
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Final
Macalester 21, at Lawrence 18
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Final
at Monmouth 59, Illinois College 14
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Final
at UW-Stevens Point 26, UW-Eau Claire 3
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Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
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Final
at Wooster 38, Oberlin 28
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Final
Texas Lutheran 41, at East Texas Baptist 34
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Final
at UW-Stout 21, UW-River Falls 16
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
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Final
Sewanee 34, at Birmingham-Southern 13
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Final
at Hope 22, Adrian 3
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Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Cancelled
La Verne at Occidental
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Final
Whitworth 17, at Pacific Lutheran 14
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Final
at Cal Lutheran 42, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 20
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
at Pacific 35, Puget Sound 27
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Final
Pomona-Pitzer 45, at Whittier 23
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Final
at Western Connecticut 28, Massachusetts Maritime 21
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Final
at St. Scholastica 56, Martin Luther 21
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Final - 5OT
at St. John Fisher 39, Utica 36
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Final - OT
at Heidelberg 48, Otterbein 45
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Final
at Shenandoah 38, Bridgewater 20
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Final
Southwestern 60, at Belhaven 31
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
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Final
at Louisiana College 52, McMurry 34
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Final
at Simpson 38, Luther 17
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Final
at Chapman 45, Redlands 26
Video Video Box Score Recap Recap
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
4th - 2:51
20 North Central (Ill.)
42 Wheaton (Ill.)
Audio Live stats Video
Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
Box Score Recap Live stats
Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
Video Box Score
Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
Video Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
Video Box Score Recap
Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
Video Box Score
Final
at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
Video Box Score Recap Photos
Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
Video Box Score
Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
Video Video Box Score
Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
Box Score
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
4th - 2:51
20 North Central (Ill.)
42 Wheaton (Ill.)
Audio Live stats Video