The secret of the Tommies' success

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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,

By Jason Bailey

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, 

“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.