It’s not that Mark Dowdle doesn’t appreciate the numbers. The St. Thomas linebacker understands why everyone else was buzzing last season about a Tommies defense that surrendered only 157.6 total yards per game, the lowest of any NCAA team at any level in 20 years.
Dowdle and his teammates weren’t keeping track of the records they were smashing during an 11-2 season that gave the Tommies their sixth MIAC championship in eight years. They were too busy obsessing about how they could be better. “It sounds weird, but we never felt like we had made it,” Dowdle said. “We look back at some of those numbers, and we still can think of a play where we made a bad read or missed something.”
As St. Thomas, ranked third in the nation in Division III football, prepares for Saturday’s season opener against Trinity International, that constant thirst to do more remains a hallmark of a prideful defense. Coach Glenn Caruso can cite a few additional reasons for the progress made since a 2014 season that defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski labeled “horrendous.”
Kuchinski and assistant coach Travis Walch have mastered the art of matching players to positions, instituting multiple position changes on defense that have allowed individuals to shine. Kuchinski remains “a mastermind” of defensive strategy, Caruso said, always seeking to add new twists to a 3-4 scheme that never stops pressuring opponents.
Though St. Thomas is the preseason favorite to win its fourth consecutive MIAC title, neither Kuchinski nor Caruso expects to replicate last year’s eye-popping statistics. That won’t stop the Tommies from trying — and as long as they maintain that mind-set, they expect the results to follow.
“I don’t think anyone thought the numbers would be that staggering,” said Kuchinski, who has been the Tommies defensive coordinator since Caruso became head coach in 2008. “Even though we were playing so dominantly last year, we were always finding things we could do a little bit better. And it was the players that were bringing it up.
“We’ve had really talented kids since 2015, and we’ve been running the same system. The difference last year was that the level of accountability and trust was at an all-time high. The players were holding each other to a very high standard, which is something we’re working to maintain this year.”
The Tommies return nine key players from a defense that allowed 50 fewer yards per game than any other team in the country. They yielded 21.9 net rushing yards per game, the least by any NCAA team in any division in 16 years. In a 58-7 victory at Gustavus Adolphus, they gave up 1 net yard on 51 plays — an MIAC record — and tied the school mark with 16 tackles for loss.
In 13 games, the defense allowed only 17 touchdowns, with three of those via the rush. St. Thomas was first among all NCAA teams last season in fewest first downs allowed (8.4 per game) and second in two other categories: tackles for loss per game (11.2) and third-down conversion rate allowed (.203).
It’s all the more remarkable considering that eight of the 11 starters on defense were recruited at different positions. Dylan Andrew, the Tommies’ leading tackler last year, and Michael Franzese, who led the team with five interceptions, had been quarterbacks. Dowdle moved from linebacker to cornerback and just returned to a linebacker spot this fall.
“Our staff does a pretty good job of identifying talent and being able to place it appropriately,” Kuchinski said. “We try to find skill sets and put them where they’re going to help us win. It’s all about getting your best guys on the field.”
That only works, though, if the best guys are on board. Dowdle, who had two interceptions and broke up six passes last season, said a team culture of selflessness and trust ensures that they are.
“Guys have been willing to put their ego aside, to adapt and grow into that spot instead of closing your mind to it,” Dowdle said. “We understand if you get moved, you’re getting moved for a reason. It’s about putting the team’s needs over your wants.”
Over the past three seasons, Kuchinski said his defense has made “a total commitment” to pressuring opponents on every play. The idea is to “make the offense defend us,” using the Tommies’ speed and agility — and a vast playbook — to keep opponents on their heels. Linebacker Adam Brant said last year’s experience made the Tommies expect even more of themselves, an attitude they are determined to carry over to this season.
The Tommies have other records to pursue this fall. They have won 28 consecutive MIAC games, tied with St. John’s for the longest string in league history. That mark could fall when the Tommies play Hamline on Sept. 15, which will be the 1,000th game since the program began in 1904.
Last season’s numbers, though, are already out of mind for a defense that still isn’t satisfied.
“It’s really important we respect that moment in time,” Caruso said. “But we need to put that on the shelf. We don’t have to chase a record or beat a statistic to be better. And we can be better.”