College football practices can be monotonous, especially in the spring with no game to prepare for. Sometimes St. Thomas Coach Glenn Caruso breaks up the routine with a little game he calls Competitive Edge. He tosses a thickly wrapped white towel on the field, calls for one defensive and one offensive player, then watches them go one-on-one in a tug of war while the others root them on.
Instead of names, Caruso barks descriptions. “Give me a wide receiver and a defensive back,” he might say, generic enough that multiple players often take first steps to the towel. But at a practice last April, when Caruso demanded the “strongest guy on the defense,” only one came forward — inside linebacker Steve Harrell. That’s how highly Harrell’s teammates regard him as a player and a leader.
This season Harrell, a senior from New Berlin, Wisconsin, has been one of the mainstays of a historically stout defense for the 9-1 Tommies, one responsible for four shutouts and two of the most one-sided games in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) history.
Harrell and linebacker Dylan Andrew, a converted quarterback, led St. Thomas in overall tackles and tackles for losses going into last weekend’s NCAA Division III first-round playoff victory over Eureka College. Yet neither player appeared among the MIAC tackling leaders because the defense usually isn’t on the field for long. St. Thomas allows less than one yard per rush (0.8, to be precise) and stops 80 percent of third-down conversion attempts, both by far the best in the MIAC.
“Our defense is as explosive as it’s ever been, but it doesn’t have the statistical standouts,” Caruso said. “That’s both the most amazing and most comforting to a coaching staff — you can play that well together and still not have guys that have amazing statistics.”
The defense, more than anything, orchestrated St. Thomas’ 97-0 rout of St. Olaf a few weeks ago, the largest margin of victory in the 97-year history of the MIAC. The Oles managed one first down on their first nine possessions. By the time they picked up their second, late in the first half, it was 64-0.
The rout came three weeks after the Tommies stuffed Hamline 84-0 — and left some MIAC followers uncomfortable.
Division III is the NCAA’s largest, with more than 450 schools, and the talent disparity among the 250 in football has been the subject of ongoing debate.
In the MIAC, every school is competitive in something. This fall Carleton won men’s and women’s cross country titles. The women’s soccer championship came down to the No. 5 and 6 seeds (St. Catherine beat Gustavus Adolphus). And in women’s volleyball, Gustavus lost in the conference tournament yet advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.
Football is the only sport where a few schools dominate and the rest try to avoid embarrassment. St. Thomas, St. John’s and Bethel combined for all but one conference championship since 2000 (Concordia won in 2004). St. Olaf hasn’t won an MIAC title since 1979, Gustavus since 1987, Hamline since 1988.
MIAC officials and fans cringed when St. John’s crushed St. Scholastica 98-0 in a nonconference game the first week of the season. (St. Scholastica Coach Kurt Ramler, a former Johnnie, likes scheduling tough early opponents to prepare his team for Upper Midwest Athletic Conference play; the usually strong Saints finished 7-3.) If you add the Tommies-Oles result to that, it means M.I.A.C. teams were responsible for the two most-lopsided scores of the season nationally. It’s an exceptionally bad look for a conference that prides itself on fair play and sportsmanship.
The first step: admitting you have a problem
MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane said he and his staff are discussing what, if anything, the conference can do about it. Petitioning the NCAA to institute a mercy rule — going to running time once a team leads by, say, 50 points in the second half — would be opposed by Division 1 schools, McKane said.
There isn’t much support for it in the MIAC anyway. “We have zero interest in that,” St. Olaf athletic director Ryan Bowles said.
It’s fair to question whether the Johnnies and Tommies coaching staffs did enough to keep the scores down. Both squads dress more than 100 players at home. St. John’s used 98 players against St. Scholastica in Collegeville, but the MIAC caps travel rosters to 60 — and both St. Thomas routs happened on the road. Expect an increase in travel rosters to 80 or 85 when conference athletic directors meet in the spring.
Hamline athletic director Jason Verdugo, a former backup quarterback to Jake Plummer at Arizona State who also pitched five seasons in the minors, chose to look inward instead of complaining. “The scores are unfortunate,” he said. “But it doesn’t absolve us in any way, shape or form from the responsibility of figuring out a way to continue to get better. It’s important.”
In the last two years, Hamline and St. Olaf replaced its football coaches — the Oles hired former St. Thomas offensive coordinator James Kilian — and took steps to upgrade their programs. But both have a ways to go. Hamline lost its last six games (St. Thomas was the third) to finish 2-8. St. Olaf (4-6) lost its last three but still doubled its win total from 2016.
“We had a successful year for us, a positive step in the right direction,” said Bowles. “We played a really, really talented team. Our football coach believes that defense is one of the best he’s ever seen. How it got to 97-0, I’m not sure we can answer that. There are some things you can do to not get to that point.”
A historically good defense
The Oles weren’t the only team throttled by the St. Thomas defense, which tops Division III in five categories, including fewest yards allowed (147.1 yards per game) and fewest first downs (84 in 10 games). Harrell, the defensive signal-caller, fits the D3 prototype. Quick but undersized, he had no D1 or D2 scholarship offers out of New Berlin Eisenhower High. D3 powerhouse Wisconsin Whitewater wasn’t interested, either. Harrell liked Caruso and the St. Thomas business curriculum.
Harrell arrived just as St. Thomas defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski was revamping his defense, seeking smaller, faster players to better counter offenses determined to exploit every square inch of the field. The 5-11, 217-pound Harrell spent his freshman year on the scout team before starting as a sophomore in 2015, leading the Stagg Bowl-bound Tommies in tackles.
Last year’s Tommie defense ranked third nationally in Division III in points allowed per game (12.3) and second in third down conversions (23.5 percent). Though it lost four senior All-Americans in cornerback Michael Alada, linebacker Jesse Addo and defensive linemen Anthony King-Foreman and Ryan Winter, this group might be better.
It held St. John’s to minus-one yard rushing in a 20-17 victory at Target Field, the Johnnies’ only loss in the regular season. Two weeks later it kept tough-running Concordia from crossing midfield to win 21-0. The Tommies allowed two rushing touchdowns all season, and two total in its last five games.
“We’ve had our share of failures with pass defense,” Harrell said. “I’m not saying that’s a weakness, but it’s part of our growth we need to improve upon. As far as running the ball, that is our expectation, that teams do not run the ball against us. From our standpoint, one-tenth of a yard per carry is too much for us.”
Kuchinski rotates 17 regulars depending on down and distance, with Harrell one of the constants.
“What sets this unit apart is the kind of accountability that they have,” he said. “It starts with guys like Steve. He’s going to hold everybody to a ridiculously freakishly high expectation. If Steve doesn’t see a kid run off the field, he’ll get right in his face, even his best friend.
“It’s always impressive to me when we have guys who are talented, but more importantly, hold each other to that high standard, and are willing to have a rift in their personal relationship because they care so much about the team and the bigger picture. That’s when you start to see the selflessness of this unit.”