It began as a simple exercise, a goal-line drill for the St. Thomas defense during training camp in August. As the players lined up, coach Glenn Caruso told them what he expected in that practice and in every game thereafter: No opponent would be allowed to run the ball on the Tommies, particularly into the end zone.
Tony Danna had done that drill repeatedly during his four seasons at St. Thomas, but something about Caruso's pronouncement resonated with him that day. His teammates on defense felt it, too. "That was a big moment for us,'' the linebacker from Lake Elmo said. "That defined who we were and what we were all about. It set the character of our defense.''
Since that day, the Tommies have remained true to their mission. The St. Thomas run defense has been among the nation's best all season and is currently ranked No. 1 in Division III, allowing opponents only 50.7 rushing yards per game. That has been the cornerstone of a sturdy overall defense that will be tested in Saturday's NCAA playoff game against Monmouth (Ill.), when the Tommies face the most prolific quarterback in D-III history.
Senior Alex Tanney has thrown for 14,022 yards and 156 touchdowns in his career, both records for all NCAA divisions. Tuesday, he was named a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, the D-III equivalent of the Heisman. Tanney has racked up 3,640 passing yards and 37 touchdown throws this season, pacing an offense that leads Division III with 47.8 points and 546.8 yards of total offense per game.
The Tommies have seen Tanney before, in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. Even before the defense found its identity in last summer's training camp, Caruso saw it shut out Monmouth in the second half of that 43-21 playoff victory, giving him a glimpse of things to come.
"That was one of the moments when our defense grew the most,'' Caruso said. "They rose to the occasion in the second half.
"I don't think they do anything magical or heroic. We have good players who understand the strengths and the liabilities of the unit. They are focused, fun-loving, fast and selfless. I feel like a very, very proud papa.''
The Tommies defense includes stalwarts such as Danna, a fifth-year senior who recently became the third player in St. Thomas history to record more than 300 tackles. He has 301, including 14 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. Danna and five defensive teammates -- linebackers Willy Baregi and Harry Pitera, linemen Danny Kane and Riley Dombek and defensive back Chinni Oji -- were named to the all-MIAC first team Tuesday.
The unit is greater than its handful of stars, however. As the Tommies defense has improved the depth of its talent, it has maintained a team spirit that has served it well. This season, seven linebackers played significant roles: Danna, Baregi and Pitera, plus Tremayne Williams, Paul Carlson, Kyle Mulrooney and Mike Valesano. All have been part of the starting lineup at various times, and all have committed themselves to being prepared for whatever they may be asked to do.
That has given the members of that group a sense of brotherhood that strengthens their pride in their work. "We're very close-knit, and we enjoy each other's company,'' said Kane, a fifth-year senior from Hopkins. "But we get after it, too. Last summer, we were all in the weight room, because all of us wanted to get better. We take a lot of satisfaction in not letting people score on us.''
That begins with stopping the rush. The idea, Danna said, is that an opponent unable to get its ground game going will be forced to pass. A one-dimensional team will find it harder to score, particularly when the speedy Tommies linebackers pressure the quarterback.
Tanney presents a unique challenge. Caruso said the defensive players and staff studied hours of film in 2009 to get a read on the quarterback, a precision passer who has great instincts, a quick release and the presence to direct a high-tempo offense.
Kane said the strategy will be to make Tanney as uncomfortable as possible while shutting down the Scots' running game. The defense learned much about itself that day in training camp, when it stopped the first-team offense on four plays inside the 5-yard line. Saturday, it hopes to discover even more.
"During that drill, we saw their confidence level rise, and their identity was born,'' Caruso said. "They have entirely bought into this system, and they're getting better and better.''