/playoffs/2012/st-thomas-aims-to-be-known-for-offensive-line

UST aims to be known as OL U

More news about: St. Thomas
Luke Marks, backup tight end Matt Allen, Curtis Hames, Jason Flesher, David Simmet and fullback Willie Schneider all get on their assignments in the Tommies' ground game.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com 

By Jason Bailey
D3sports.com

The undefeated Tommies owned a two-touchdown lead. They possessed the ball in enemy territory. They were 152 seconds away from reaching the first Stagg Bowl in school history.

And St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso grimaced.

The directions were clear. Caruso wanted to drain as much hope from the UW-Oshkosh sideline as possible, pointing to the play clock while telling the line judge to call timeout just before it expired. “One second. No more.” But when the official blew his whistle, two seconds remained.

It was a minor misstep, but every detail is important when you’re rebuilding a program.

Since Caruso took the reins of a 2-8 team before the 2008 season, the Tommies are 57-7 with two NCAA quarterfinal appearances, a trip to the semifinals, and now a national championship berth. The next challenge St. Thomas (14-0, 8-0 MIAC) faces is Mount Union (14-0, 9-0 OAC), a perennial power that has won 10 national titles while playing in 15 of the past 19 Stagg Bowls.

That’s a dynasty by any definition, and St. Thomas has potential to create its own because of a demanding and meticulous coach whose attitude trickles down to his players. Although they’re not a flashy team loaded with superstars, it’s impossible to ignore the growing pile of victories.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” said Caruso, a former center at Ithaca. “I told anyone who was willing to listen that we were going to build this program around the offensive line. I think a lot of people wondered why. You have a lot of places that are Quarterback U or Linebacker U.”

There are the obvious physical benefits to building a solid offensive line. St. Thomas uses about 1,500 pounds of synchronized smashes — sophomore left tackle T.J. Woodrow, sophomore left guard Ulice Payne III, senior center Curtis James, junior right guard Jason Flesher and freshman right tackle Luke Marks — to fuel a run-oriented offense that relies on sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell’s mobility and freshman running back Brenton Braddock’s vision.

But the group that has allowed only 15 sacks also brings stability in another way.

St. Thomas upholds the offensive line as a symbol of the attitude – fulfill your role without regard for outside recognition — it demands from every player. The offensive line sits in the front row during offensive meetings, starters filling the five seats to the left of Caruso. Their lockers are in the middle of the locker room, they eat first at team meals, and they lead the Tommies onto the field before games. It’s a unique experience for the sport’s least glamorous position.

“(When) they walk across campus, everybody probably waves and shakes hands with the tailback and the quarterback and the outside linebacker,” Caruso said. “But they probably don’t jump up and down when they see the left guard walking into the union.”

Prioritizing the offensive line is already paying dividends. James and Marks joined the program after redshirt seasons at Minnesota and South Dakota State while Flesher played at Division II Minnesota State-Moorhead for two years. They follow in the footsteps of all-American center Josh Ostrue (2008, 2009, 2010) and tackle Dan Chapman (2011).

St. Thomas takes pride in wearing down opposing defenses, as it did last week in a 16-play first-quarter drive against UW-Oshkosh.
d3photography.com file photo by Ryan Coleman 

Offensive line coach Joe Lepsche said that fielding big, athletic players along the offensive line helps St. Thomas wear down opponents during a game. The Tommies had 58 rushing attempts in their 28-14 semifinal win over UW-Oshkosh, continuing to chip away even though their longest run was only 17 yards. It marked the fifth time they reached 50 carries this season.

“Yardage that we pick up is great. Touchdowns we score are fantastic,” James said. “But what we take the most pride is in the fourth quarter when the other team is huffing and puffing.

“You can just see the look in their eyes. They definitely know what’s coming. We can feel that as an offensive line, and we take advantage of it like a pack of hungry dogs.”

That ferocity originates from James and tight end Logan Marks, the only senior starters on an extraordinarily young offense. Marks is an extension of the offensive line who enjoys blocking and is usually the top target on play-action passes, ranking second in receptions (45), receiving yards (506) and total touchdowns (seven) for St. Thomas. James must be intelligent enough to quickly identify defensive fronts while brutish enough to push defenders around seconds later.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde act can be seen in neighboring photos on Caruso’s desk: James reveals a nasty scowl while burying an opposing nose guard in one; he holds two of Caruso’s children in the other. James harnessed the former while motivating the offense with a staccato rally before the UW-Oshkosh game. The latter spills out in interviews, where his passion is equally evident.

“They follow that energy and attitude I’m able to portray,” James said. “If I come off as fearless against a team we play like Mount Union, it starts to infiltrate their psyche as well.”

Confidence is shared by the entire St. Thomas program, which has finished undefeated in the MIAC for three consecutive seasons. Despite showing flashes of excellence during this regular season, James and Marks said the offense didn’t truly hit its stride until the playoffs began.

Against talented playoff teams, St. Thomas has adopted the goal of picking up first downs. By chaining together those small victories, the offense will inevitably score touchdowns with the outside zone plays where running lanes are created by tight ends in motion or pulling guards.

“It’s just ‘will’ and ‘want,’ ” Lepsche said. “It comes down to being selfless and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to throw our body in there. A lot of it has to do with timing. Keeping your chest up, eyes up, getting a good punch and running through the defender.”

Effort is important because perfection is impossible. Even James struggled against Oshkosh by fumbling one snap and forcing O’Connell to snag several others. It wasn’t a case of nerves, James said, but rather the defense keeping him preoccupied by disguising their pre-snap looks. Fixing those mistakes has been a top priority this week considering the national title is at stake.

St. Thomas has taken a surprising squad to this year’s Stagg Bowl while avoiding the traditional Division III powers. But the seeds for beating St. Norbert, Elmhurst, Hobart and UW-Oshkosh this postseason were planted long ago. St. Thomas isn’t afraid of the dirty work needed to grow.

“It’s been there since the second I stepped on campus freshman year,” Marks said. “This year has been a testament. We’ve had so many guys step up when we need them. It’s everybody having the backs of the person next to them. It’s definitely been instilled from Day One.”

Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Framingham State 50, Massachusetts Maritime 7
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Muhlenberg 56, at Juniata 40
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at Dean 25, Becker 10
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Salisbury 27, at TCNJ 7
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MIT 38, at Catholic 21
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Merchant Marine 56, at Maine Maritime 31
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at Hobart 34, Endicott 17
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at Morrisville State 44, Nichols 22
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at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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at Albright 9, Widener 7
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Christopher Newport 16, at Montclair State 8
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at Westminster (Pa.) 41, Bethany 14
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Middlebury 41, at Bowdoin 14
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Williams 24, at Colby 7
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Amherst 36, at Hamilton 6
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Ursinus 35, at Moravian 17
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Trinity (Conn.) 51, at Bates 0
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at LaGrange 38, Brevard 28
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Geneva 33, at Thiel 24
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at Plymouth State 37, Mass-Dartmouth 7
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Kean 28, at Southern Virginia 14
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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Union 17, at Curry 14
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at Carnegie Mellon 37, Thomas More 17
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Lycoming 44, at King's 41
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at Western New England 21, Husson 14
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Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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at DePauw 51, Wooster 24
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at Ohio Wesleyan 37, Allegheny 21
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at Misericordia 43, Wilkes 14
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at N.C. Wesleyan 35, Maryville (Tenn.) 25
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Huntingdon 31, at Ferrum 28
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at McDaniel 27, Gettysburg 20
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at Buffalo State 33, RPI 21
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Franklin and Marshall 27, at Susquehanna 24
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at Denison 45, Oberlin 17
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 10, Westminster (Mo.) 7
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at Eureka 44, Crown 20
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at Lebanon Valley 24, FDU-Florham 14
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at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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at Ohio Northern 35, Otterbein 7
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at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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at Rose-Hulman 37, Defiance 14
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at Marietta 49, Muskingum 25
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Franklin 59, at Bluffton 30
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at Hanover 64, Anderson 21
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Mount St. Joseph 31, at Manchester 14
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Worcester State 34, at Westfield State 10
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Coast Guard 13, at Norwich 9
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at Fitchburg State 31, Bridgewater State 29
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Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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at Millsaps 17, Sewanee 13
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at Rhodes 35, Birmingham-Southern 9
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at Hendrix 36, Austin 24
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at Martin Luther 34, Greenville 20
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at Trinity (Texas) 41, Chapman 35
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at Loras 73, Buena Vista 34
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at Wartburg 30, Washington U. 20
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at Gustavus Adolphus 51, Hamline 7
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Augsburg 48, at Carleton 28
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at Bethel 64, St. Olaf 7
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at Luther 21, Dubuque 17
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at Central 52, Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Simpson 38, at Coe 33
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Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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St. Norbert 66, at Grinnell 13
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at Knox 13, Ripon 6
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at MacMurray 32, Iowa Wesleyan 14
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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Southwestern 37, at Louisiana College 34
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Monmouth 26, at Macalester 0
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at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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at Springfield 42, WPI 10
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at Cornell 55, Beloit 36
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at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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at Hartwick 24, St. John Fisher 21
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at UW-La Crosse 41, Carroll 6
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at St. Scholastica 37, Minnesota-Morris 3
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at George Fox 44, UW-Eau Claire 0
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at Western Connecticut 37, Salve Regina 23
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at UW-Stevens Point 41, Adrian 28
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at Wesleyan 24, Tufts 17
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at Averett 35, Methodist 6
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at Berry 28, Centre 14
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at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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at Grove City 24, St. Vincent 14
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at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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Carthage 55, at Augustana 14
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Chicago 28, at Illinois College 7
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at Sul Ross State 35, McMurry 7
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at Wilmington 37, Capital 30
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Lake Forest 42, at Lawrence 26
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at East Texas Baptist 79, Belhaven 40
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Arizona Christian 56, at Whittier 38
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Sep. 28: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Shenandoah at Randolph-Macon
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Sep. 29: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Delaware Valley at FDU-Florham
Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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Final
at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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Final
at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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Final
Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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Final
Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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Final
at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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Final
at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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Final
at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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Sep. 29: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Delaware Valley at FDU-Florham