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.

comments powered by Disqus
Sep. 4: All times Eastern
8:00 PM
East Texas Baptist at Tex. A&M-Commerce
Audio
Sep. 5: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Anna Maria at Worcester State
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Western New England at Springfield
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Albright at Kean
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Widener at Rowan
Live Stats Live Stats Audio
7:00 PM
WPI at Curry
Live Stats Live Stats
7:00 PM
Mass-Dartmouth at Mount Ida
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Salve Regina at Bridgewater State
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
William Paterson at SUNY-Maritime
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Ursinus at TCNJ
Live Stats Audio
7:00 PM
Fitchburg State at Becker
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Nichols at Westfield State
Live Stats Video
7:30 PM
McDaniel at Catholic
Live Stats Audio
7:30 PM
Trine at Manchester
Live Stats Live Stats Audio Audio
8:00 PM
Waldorf at UW-Whitewater
Live Stats
Sep. 6: All times Eastern
12:00 PM
Endicott at Framingham State
Live Stats Video
12:00 PM
Dickinson at Hobart
Live Stats Video Audio
12:00 PM
Holland College (PEI, Canada) at Maine Maritime
Preview Video
12:00 PM
Otterbein at St. John Fisher
Live Stats Audio Audio
12:00 PM
Union at Ithaca
12:00 PM
Pomona-Pitzer at MIT
Preview Video
12:00 PM
Husson at Alfred
Video
12:00 PM
Randolph-Macon at Johns Hopkins
Live Stats Video
12:00 PM
Cortland State at Buffalo State
Live Stats
1:00 PM
St. Lawrence at Coast Guard
Video
1:00 PM
Thomas More at Wesley
Preview Live Stats Audio Audio
1:00 PM
Plymouth State at Castleton State
Live Stats Video
1:00 PM
Lebanon Valley at Franklin and Marshall
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Emory and Henry at Ferrum
Audio
1:00 PM
Washington and Lee at Averett
Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Hampden-Sydney at Wabash
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Rose-Hulman at Kalamazoo
Live Stats Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Wilmington at Olivet
Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
King's at Moravian
Live Stats
1:00 PM
Alfred State at Morrisville State
Preview Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Susquehanna at Lycoming
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Oberlin at Brockport State
1:00 PM
Utica at Misericordia
Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Delaware Valley at Montclair State
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Southern Virginia at Methodist
Live Stats Video
1:00 PM
Marietta at Kenyon
1:00 PM
Merchant Marine at Apprentice
1:00 PM
Muhlenberg at Wilkes
Live Stats Video
1:00 PM
Sewanee at DePauw
Live Stats Video Audio
1:30 PM
Ohio Wesleyan at Bluffton
Live Stats
1:30 PM
Adrian at Defiance
Live Stats Video Audio
1:30 PM
RPI at Norwich
Live Stats Video
1:30 PM
Alma at Heidelberg
1:30 PM
Berry at Maryville (Tenn.)
Live Stats Video Audio
1:30 PM
Bridgewater (Va.) at Gettysburg
Live Stats Video Video Audio
1:30 PM
Muskingum at Waynesburg
Audio
1:30 PM
St. Vincent at John Carroll
Live Stats Audio
1:30 PM
Mount Union at Bethany
Preview Live Stats Video
1:30 PM
Juniata at Grove City
Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Franklin at Illinois Wesleyan
Live Stats Video
2:00 PM
Rhodes at Austin
Live Stats
2:00 PM
Carleton at Macalester
Live Stats Video Audio
2:00 PM
UW-Platteville at Buena Vista
Live Stats Video
2:00 PM
Ohio Northern at Washington U.
Live Stats Video
2:00 PM
UW-River Falls at St. John's
Live Stats Video Audio
2:00 PM
Crown at Gustavus Adolphus
2:00 PM
Concordia-Moorhead at Jamestown
2:00 PM
Simpson at Iowa Wesleyan
2:00 PM
Hope at Monmouth
Preview Live Stats Video Audio
2:00 PM
Lawrence at Rockford
2:00 PM
Carroll at Lakeland
2:00 PM
Elmhurst at Loras
2:00 PM
Millikin at Greenville
Audio
2:00 PM
Coe at Wheaton (Ill.)
2:00 PM
Presentation at Luther
Video
2:00 PM
Martin Luther at Maranatha Baptist
Video
2:00 PM
MacMurray at Culver-Stockton
2:00 PM
Eureka at Knox
2:00 PM
UW-Stout at Dakota Wesleyan
2:00 PM
Huntingdon at Louisiana College
Video
2:00 PM
Ripon at St. Scholastica
Live Stats Video
2:00 PM
Hendrix at Westminster (Mo.)
Video
2:10 PM
UW-Eau Claire at St. Thomas
Audio Audio
3:00 PM
St. Norbert at Carthage
Live Stats Video
4:00 PM
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps at Puget Sound
4:00 PM
Lewis and Clark at Whitworth
Live Stats Video
4:00 PM
College of Idaho at Pacific
Live Stats Video Audio
4:30 PM
Arizona Christian at George Fox
5:00 PM
Hartwick at Western Connecticut
6:00 PM
Salisbury at Christopher Newport
6:00 PM
Augustana at Mount St. Joseph
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Carnegie Mellon at Case Western Reserve
Preview Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Stevenson at N.C. Wesleyan
Live Stats Video Audio
7:00 PM
Butler at Wittenberg
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Shenandoah at Gallaudet
Preview Live Stats Audio
7:00 PM
Wooster at Washington and Jefferson
Live Stats Video Audio
7:00 PM
Geneva at Frostburg State
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Thiel at Allegheny
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Taylor (Ind.) at Anderson
Live Stats Audio
7:00 PM
Hiram at Westminster (Pa.)
7:00 PM
Denison at Earlham
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Greensboro at Guilford
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Aurora at Illinois College
7:00 PM
Albion at UW-Stevens Point
Live Stats Video Audio
7:00 PM
Concordia (Wis.) at North Park
7:00 PM
Beloit at Chicago
Live Stats
7:00 PM
LaGrange at Birmingham-Southern
7:00 PM
Howard Payne at Trinity (Texas)
Audio
7:00 PM
Mary Hardin-Baylor at Millsaps
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Sul Ross State at Texas Lutheran
Live Stats Video
7:00 PM
Robert Morris-Chicago at UW-Oshkosh
7:00 PM
UW-La Crosse at Dubuque
Live Stats Video
7:30 PM
Hanover at Centre
Video Audio
7:30 PM
Central at Benedictine
Live Stats Video Audio
8:00 PM
St. Olaf at Northwestern (Minn.)
8:00 PM
Hamline at Minnesota-Morris
Live Stats Video
8:00 PM
Lake Forest at Wisconsin Lutheran
Live Stats Audio
8:00 PM
Wartburg at Augsburg
Live Stats Video Audio Audio
8:00 PM
Hardin-Simmons at Southwestern
Preview Live Stats Video Audio
Dec. 20: All times Eastern
Final
at UW-Whitewater 52, Mount Union 14
@ Salem Stadium; Salem, Va.
Recap Photos Photos
Dec. 14: All times Eastern
Final
UW-Whitewater 16, at Mary Hardin-Baylor 15
Recap Recap Photos
Final
at Mount Union 41, North Central (Ill.) 40
Box Score Recap Recap Photos

What We're Reading