December 8, 2011

Making the Tommies tick

More news about: St. Thomas | UW-Whitewater
Willy Baregi and the St. Thomas defense have been locking opponents down all season.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com

By Andrew Lovell
D3sports.com

Every Sunday, after poring over the game video from the previous day's game with the rest of his coaching staff, St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso likes to show a few clips to his players.

They can be anything from a great individual play to a big hit. He'll even sprinkle in a few bloopers, just for the fun of it.

But this past Sunday, Caruso selected just one highlight from his team's 45-10 win over St. John Fisher in the NCAA quarterfinals -- clip No. 82.

Clip No. 82 starts out like dozens of other plays in the game. Cardinals quarterback Ahmed Hassanien drops back in the pocket and, after a few seconds, is flushed outside. It's what happens at this point that made clip No. 82 a must-show for Caruso.

In unison, defensive tackle Ayo Idowu and nose guard Danny Kane shed their blocks, sprint laterally across the field and chase Hassanien out of bounds for a 1-yard gain.

"The work and the effort that these kids focus on every day, every play, never taking a play for granted [is crucial]," Caruso said. "... When I see a play like that, not only is our defense [doing well], but our team is in a good situation. We've got guys that are hungry to get to the football."

Caruso's defense played like it was starving Saturday. The Tommies held the run-heavy Cardinals to 60 rushing yards and just 133 total offensive yards, while forcing three interceptions. Through three playoff games -- all wins by an average margin of 36.3 points per game -- the Tommies' have surrendered a total of 78 rushing yards and no rushing touchdowns.

To help put that in perspective, over the same span the St. Thomas offense, led by workhorse back Colin Tobin, has rushed for 946 yards and 13 touchdowns. That's a staggering difference.

Of course, it's nothing new to Caruso's squad -- the Tommies lead the country in rushing defense (47.8 yards per game) and rank third in total defense (206 yards per game). For Caruso, playing successful defense starts with stopping the run. And at St. Thomas, they've been able to take the run away from nearly every opponent this season.

"Everyone wants to stop the run, but what is your commitment level to stopping the run, and can you do so without marginalizing your back-end coverage?" Caruso said. "That's what I really love about the way our defense is built. We've committed to stopping the run [but] that does not mean I need to put nine guys in the box and just blitz every single down."

St. Thomas has allowed just 622 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in 13 games this season. This includes almost unfathomable efforts against St. Olaf (4 yards allowed), Hamline (minus-1 yard), Carleton (9 yards) and Monmouth (4 yards).

So, the obvious question is, how is this possible? What has St. Thomas been able to do better than every other team in the country? The reason, according to Caruso is three-pronged -- talent level, hustle and commitment.

Chinni Oji has three interceptions and has broken up nine more passes for St. Thomas. He broke into the starting lineup during the 2010 playoffs.
Photo by Tim Ward for d3photography.com

While that might seem cliched, Caruso insists it isn't. He is, however, being humble. The system his team and defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski employs also has plenty to do with it.

If you've never seen St. Thomas play, just picture the Pittsburgh Steelers' typical defense. It's your basic 3-4 -- one nose tackle sandwiched between two ends on the line, with two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers behind them. The look, in and of itself, isn't unique. It's the different looks, pressures and blitzes the Steelers bring out of that traditional 3-4 look that makes their defense one of the best in the NFL on an annual basis.

That's what offenses have to deal with when facing the Tommies' 3-4 front.

"For people that haven't seen us play, and I'm not trying to liken us to an NFL team, but if you watch the way that the Steelers are able to create multiple blitz packages using their four-linebacker set, it's a very similar MO to that," Caruso said.

It starts up front, where the linemen must take up blocks and keep the second level clean for the linebackers to operate. The Tommies rotate six main linemen in throughout any given game, but Kane, sophomore Riley Dombek and senior Blake Brix have solidified themselves as the key cogs.

"You might have a defensive lineman finish the day with a stat line of two tackles and a half a tackle for a loss, and it could be a phenomenal day," Caruso said.

Behind the line, the two inside linebackers operate, almost always inside the box. Fifth-year senior Tony Danna leads the team with 68 tackles (team-best 17 for loss). The two outside linebackers are just as key, but are counted on to provide more versatility. Some plays they are rushing the quarterback, while other plays they are dropping back into coverage.

St. Thomas almost always bring rushers. The key is mixing up the looks and bringing that pressure from different angles.

Senior outside linebacker Willy Baregi is tied for the team lead in sacks (seven) with Tremayne Williams, who has taken over as a full-time starter after Harry Pitera was lost for the season in the first practice of the postseason.

"I think that really speaks to our defense's depth, that we can have that type of injury to that pivotal a player and another guy can step in," Caruso said. ... "I also think it speaks to the amount of focus that these guys have on the team. We have 120 guys and only 22 of them start, and we're only going to play with 50 to 52 on game day. But they have completely bought in to the idea of the team being the most important thing. They are prepared to work."

Junior Chinni Oji has been a mainstay at cornerback in the Tommies' traditional zone coverage secondary. Jack Gavin (team-best five interceptions) has been impressive on the other side in place of projected starter Ryan Deitz, who was lost for the year in the preseason.

Key injuries, like those to Pitera and Deitz, could be enough to derail many defenses. And while the losses certainly test the Tommies' depth, each time they have been able to plug in a new player and keep rolling.

"Around here, we're firm believers that the system is the star," Caruso said. "Certainly we have great players, and I believe they're well-coached, but the system allows us to be as multiple as we really need to be when you look at the wide array of offenses we face throughout the given year."

The wait-your-turn attitude Caruso has instilled has permeated the program. Take, for example, the verse from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life" that hangs in the Tommies' locker room:

Let us, then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

Of course, the Tommies' defense will face its stiffest test of the season this coming Saturday when it tries to slow down UW-Whitewater standout running back Levell Coppage. Coppage needs 480 more rushing yards to eclipse Nate Kmic's all-time NCAA rushing record. It goes without saying that, if St. Thomas is to upset the two-time defending national champion and snap Whitewater's 43-game winning streak, the Tommies' defense will have to at least slow Coppage down.

"He's a guy that can you in a foot race and make you miss in a phone booth," Caruso said. "... There's dozens of kids that can make you miss in a boxing ring, but there's very few kids in the country that can make you miss in a phone both, and Levell is one of those kids."

Football players and coaches are, by default, creatures of habit. The game simply demands it of those that play or coach it. St. Thomas has, repeatedly and successfully, slowed other teams' running games this season.

Come Saturday, will that be enough to secure the first Stagg Bowl berth in the Tommies' storied history? Caruso isn't sure, and he certainly wasn't thinking about it Monday night.

"That's a question I'd love to process if and when the time arises," Caruso said. " ... My wife does a great job at reminding me that today is a blessing, and not to wish it away and not to let it get by you."

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