The St. Thomas football team's defense is built around the concept of individual responsibility, of knowing one's specific job and performing it with precision. In that system, linebacker Mike Valesano said, the cumulative effort of 11 smaller heroes means that no one needs to be Hercules or Superman.
That does not prevent the occasional star turn. Twice in the past three weeks, defensive lineman Ayo Idowu has gotten his hands on a loose ball and run for a touchdown, the first scores of his career. While those plays were instrumental in playoff victories over Elmhurst and Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Idowu's embrace of his usual role outside the spotlight -- along with that of his teammates -- is what really got St. Thomas to Friday's NCAA Division III championship game against Mount Union.
The Tommies are ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense (14.1 points per game), seventh in run defense (76.9 yards per game) and sixth in third-down conversion defense (58 first downs made in 212 attempts, 27 percent). During the regular season, they held MIAC rival Bethel to its first shutout in 90 games; in last Saturday's semifinal victory over Wisconsin-Oshkosh, they allowed only 25 rushing yards and forced four turnovers.
Though Idowu got the glory, he is quick to note that his touchdowns resulted from the Tommies' collective effort. In both cases -- the go-ahead score in a tight game against Elmhurst and the opening score in the victory over Oshkosh -- his teammates caused the fumble by disrupting a pitch, then cleared his path to the end zone. They will face their sternest test this season against No. 1 Mount Union, which boasts the most productive offense in Division III.
"We won't change what we do," said Idowu, who leads the No. 3 Tommies with five sacks and 16 tackles for loss. "Our focus is always on stopping the run first. And we're definitely a team defense. We're a very close group of guys."
'Clear minds make fast legs'
Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said the steady play of the defense has been his team's touchstone throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski directs a 3-4 scheme in which players are expected to know their duties and stay on task.
The defense is constructed to adapt to a variety of situations, and it often mixes up its personnel to keep opposing teams guessing. But Caruso said it is not unnecessarily complicated; one of his credos is "Clear minds make fast legs," and Kuchinski's schemes ensure the Tommies' speed and instincts are not compromised. They also make use of a broad array of talent, with key statistics spread out among a large group of players.
Kuchinski came to St. Thomas when Caruso took over the program in 2008, inheriting a defense that had given up more than 35 points per game. Idowu, who played at Woodbury High School, already had decided to play at Concordia (St. Paul) when he spoke to Caruso.
But Idowu could not forget how convincing and passionate Caruso was about his desire to turn around the Tommies' undistinguished program. He changed his mind and committed himself to that same ambition, bringing a fun-loving personality inside a 6-2, 251-pound body. Though Idowu missed some time this season with an ankle injury, he was determined not to let it spoil his senior year.
"I wanted to make an impact on this team in the short term and the long term," said Idowu, who has 47 1/2 tackles -- third-most on the team-- and is adept at harassing quarterbacks. "I owed it to them. I had an epiphany in the middle of the Concordia game, and I decided I was going to stop thinking about my ankle hurting. I was just going to play as hard as I could."
Since that game-- a 21-7 victory on Nov. 3 -- Idowu has flourished. The first time he returned a fumble for a touchdown, he surprised himself by running 86 yards. The second time, much to his relief, he had to cover only 25 yards. In addition to the two scores, Idowu has forced a fumble, broken up three passes and recorded three tackles for loss in four playoff games.
Consider him impressed
Mount Union coach Larry Kehres is keenly aware of his performances and those of his teammates. Kehres offered the Tommies' defense a major compliment, saying it reminded him of his own -- which is ranked at the top of Division III.
"To be a good defensive unit, the coaching staff has to put you in position to make good plays," Kehres said. "They are in good position. And they're quick, they're really in good physical condition, and they're very, very good tacklers."
Caruso said the defense has grown in confidence throughout the season, and he attributes its strength to its consistent ability to play hard, play fast and run to the ball. And, occasionally, to its ability to run the ball in for a touchdown, with one man finishing the work begun by 11.
"There has been so much blood and sweat shed for this opportunity, from everyone on this team and the ones who came before us," Idowu said. "The last three years at this time, we were in the library studying for finals. Now we're getting ready to try and win a national championship for St. Thomas. It's surreal."