December 6, 2012

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.

Sep. 24: All times Eastern
Final
Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
Final
at Hobart 27, Union 23
Box Score Recap
Final
at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
Box Score Recap
Final
at Massachusetts Maritime 32, Worcester State 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Endicott 37, Nichols 0
Box Score Recap
Final
MIT 30, at Maine Maritime 13
Box Score
Final
at Buffalo State 40, Morrisville State 24
Box Score Recap
Final
at Salve Regina 48, Coast Guard 10
Box Score
Final
St. Lawrence 20, at RPI 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Framingham State 23, Western Connecticut 17
Box Score
Final
at Montclair State 21, Rowan 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
Box Score Recap
Final
at Trinity (Conn.) 38, Bates 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Western New England 59, Curry 28
Box Score
Final
at Utica 24, Cortland 13
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
Colby 9, at Williams 7
Box Score Photos
Final
at Middlebury 40, Bowdoin 3
Box Score
Final
at Amherst 34, Hamilton 0
Box Score
Final
Kean 24, at William Paterson 13
Box Score Recap
Final
at DePauw 66, Hiram 17
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Franklin and Marshall 45, at Juniata 22
Box Score
Final
at Kenyon 31, Allegheny 7
Box Score
Final
Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
Box Score
Final
Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
Lycoming 28, at Misericordia 24
Box Score
Final
at Plymouth State 30, Mass-Dartmouth 14
Box Score
Final
at Husson 35, Alfred State 0
Box Score
Final
at Springfield 28, WPI 23
Box Score Recap
Final
at Moravian 24, Dickinson 10
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Denison 45, Wooster 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
Box Score
Final
at St. Vincent 57, Grove City 32
Box Score Recap
Final
at Susquehanna 55, Gettysburg 40
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at King's 21, Lebanon Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Alfred 20, Ithaca 6
Box Score Recap
Final
at Widener 25, Wilkes 23
Final
at McDaniel 30, Ursinus 27
Box Score Recap
Final
at Muskingum 28, Marietta 10
Box Score Photos
Final
at Minnesota-Morris 28, Iowa Wesleyan 27
Final
at John Carroll 42, Heidelberg 14
Box Score
Final
Ohio Northern 16, at Otterbein 10
Box Score Photos
Final
Case Western Reserve 35, at Waynesburg 7
Box Score
Final
at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Rose-Hulman 23, at Defiance 15
Box Score
Final
at Centre 49, Chicago 27
Box Score
Final
at Mount St. Joseph 38, Manchester 19
Box Score Recap
Final
Hanover 49, at Anderson 25
Box Score
Final
at Merchant Marine 55, Rochester 7
Box Score
Final
Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
Box Score Recap
Final
Concordia-Chicago 42, at Maranatha Baptist 10
Box Score Photos
Final
Washington U. 36, at Birmingham-Southern 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
Box Score
Final
at Northwestern (Minn.) 38, Martin Luther 20
Box Score
Final
at Eureka 28, MacMurray 13
Box Score
Final
at Westminster (Mo.) 35, Greenville 14
Box Score
Final
Dubuque 30, at Luther 17
Box Score Recap
Final
Monmouth 52, at Lake Forest 6
Box Score Photos
Final
St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Augsburg 49, Carleton 17
Box Score Photos
Final
Bethel 44, at St. Olaf 7
Box Score
Final
at Hamline 42, Gustavus Adolphus 40
Box Score Recap
Final
at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
Box Score Photos
Final
at UW-River Falls 42, Southwestern 22
Box Score
Final
Simpson 17, at Buena Vista 9
Box Score
Final
at St. Scholastica 49, Crown 13
Box Score Recap
Final
Cornell 46, at Beloit 41
Box Score
Final
at Carthage 27, Augustana 24
Final
Coe 48, at Nebraska Wesleyan 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Wartburg 56, Finlandia 0
Box Score
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
Box Score Recap
Final
Hendrix 42, at Millsaps 14
Box Score
Final
Illinois Wesleyan 45, at North Park 10
Final
at Macalester 34, Grinnell 0
Box Score
Final
at Ripon 33, Knox 19
Final
Illinois College 40, at Lawrence 15
Final
UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
Box Score
Final
Central 42, at Loras 34
Box Score Recap
Final
at Geneva 35, Thiel 27
Box Score
Final
UW-Eau Claire 40, at Wisconsin Lutheran 14
Box Score
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
Box Score Recap
Final
UW-Stevens Point 44, at Adrian 19
Box Score
Final
UW-La Crosse 41, at Carroll 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Berry 41, Sewanee 3
Box Score Recap Recap Photos
Final
Westminster (Pa.) 38, at Bethany 9
Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 29, at Oberlin 16
Box Score
Final
at Tufts 17, Wesleyan 14
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Capital 35, Wilmington 21
Box Score
Final
at Southwestern Assemblies 23, Austin 17
Box Score Photos
Cancelled
Langston at McMurry
Video Live Stats
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
Box Score Recap
Final
at Chapman 19, Trinity (Texas) 17
Box Score Recap
Sep. 29: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Randolph-Macon at Shenandoah
Live Stats
Sep. 30: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Emory and Henry at Washington and Lee
Video Live Stats Audio Audio
Sep. 24: All times Eastern
Final
at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hobart 27, Union 23
Box Score Recap
Final
Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
Final
at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
Box Score
Final
Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
Box Score
Final
Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Utica 24, Cortland 13
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
Box Score Recap
Final
at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
Box Score Recap
Final
St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
Box Score Photos
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
Box Score Recap
Final
UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
Box Score
Final
UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
Box Score
Final
Central 42, at Loras 34
Box Score Recap
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
Box Score Recap