Tale of the Tape: UConn offense vs. Buffalo

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

We've sifted through the Buffalo tape and took what we could to project how the new, Boyle-led offense will look next Saturday. It wasn't pretty.

Folks, we’re going to call an audible.

Typically with our Tales of the Tape, we’d hit upon the major points of the Huskies’ last game, detail their areas in need of improvement, describe those that performed well and provide a comprehensive drive-by-drive analysis. Though, as you know, this week has been anything but typical down in the UConn football offices.

0-4, or rather, 10-18, tends to do that.

So here at your friendly, neighborhood UConn Blog, we’re going to shorten this week’s Tales of the Tape and change them around a little bit.

For, there’s no need to tell you about Chandler Whitmer’s poor performance— he’s no longer the starter. Furthermore, there’s no reason to detail the final drives captained by Casey Cochran—he’s not going to be playing either.

Lastly, there’s no purpose to go on and on about the offense’s worst game of the season to-date (yes, Towson included)—because it just flat-out sucked.

In addition, the staff has already made some alterations to the playbook, Shakim Phillips and Kevin Friend should soon return and Tim Boyle has already replaced Whitmer. Therefore, rehashing the unit’s last performance, where all those areas were worse off, wouldn’t do us much good.

So, we’re going to take the attitude that coach Weist has with his team: The season for this offense largely starts next Saturday.

To make T.J. smile even wider, we’re also not yet going to forget about the 41-12 running beatdown of the Bulls. Instead, as the coach communicated to his bunch about their four losses, we’re going to learn from that experience.

But, you get to decide the level of energy you want to have here while reading.

If we wrote with coach’s usual preferred level of vigor, WE’D PROBABLY BE WRITING IN ALL-CAPS LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME AND YOU WOULD HATE IT!!!!!!!!

WHOOOOOOO PARTICIPLES! YAAAAAA SUBJUNCTIVE! LET’S GOOOOO!!!!!!

Whew, OK.

Here’s our film breakdown of the Buffalo game guided by the eyes we all already have on the future:

Keep it up:

Geremy Davis

To Fix:

Offensive line pass protection

Offensive line run blocking

Quarterback play (check?)

Tight end production

Personnel

Given the injuries at wideout and inexperience at tight end, the Huskies opted to dip into their depth at tailback against Buffalo. UConn called for more two-back sets last Saturday than we had seen in any game so far this season. These more crowded backfields (which sometimes did consist of one tight end) were quite often deployed as a extra pass blockers to aid a porous offensive line. Occasionally, Lyle McCombs or Max Delorenzo would leak out into the flat on a delayed release, but not often.

There were mixed results with this tactic. Some seven-man protections stood strong against the Bulls’ pass rush, while others were less effective than a tinfoil river dam. Should the Huskies sustain similar injures again this season, expect the coaching staff to again go with this approach. The young receivers did not look sharp, whatsoever.

Sean McQuillan, Spencer Parker and Elijah Norris again rotated snaps at tight end throughout the game. McQuillan, as to be expected, enjoyed the best receiving game of the trio, while Parker was sent out primarily as an additional blocker. Norris reeled in his first career catch, and overall struggled when blocking. He was tossed aside like a rag doll on a couple plays due to poor technique, but he did once secure a very nice hold and push back of Khalil Mack.

Finally, no one on the offensive line had a good day. Period.

The biggest problems again came from the right side, where Tyler Bullock rotated in intermittently with Gus Cruz, who performed poorly in the run and pass game. Back-up tackle Dalton Gifford was marginally better than the man he replaced, Xavier Hemingway, allowing a sack and a couple tackles for loss.

Meanwhile, center Alex Mateas was dominated early by Buffalo nose guard Kristja Kokoli, and rarely gained control of the middle of the line. Jimmy Bennett put forth a horrid first drive, later missed an assignment on a third down screen and failed to handle a stunt with left guard Steve Greene. This led to the team’s third sack out of five on the afternoon. The whole line struggled all day against stunts and twists.

The spark notes here look like this: Kevin Friend has to get healthy, and a move to a heftier Tyler Bullock might be in the works. This group has to get better.

Formations

As mentioned above, UConn aligned itself in more two-back sets than we’d previously seen from them all season. The unit also spent just over half of its snaps in the shotgun, which is of course a skewed figure given the Huskies played from behind the entire game and had to pass.

When under center, the Huskies handed the ball off 60 percent of the time, and that number skyrocketed to 80 percent when they faced a first down. This kind of tendency has to go.

Weist did a nice job of attacking the seams of the Bulls defense with four-receiver formations that featured slots to both sides. Buffalo prefers to stick in its base 3-4 front and favorite Cover 8 coverage as much as it can. More horizontally spread formations render both those ineffective. But of course, Weist couldn’t stick with these sets on a regular basis, because that would leave the pass protection out to dry. The Huskies longest play of the day, Deshon Foxx’s 49-yard catch and run, came on a curl-seam combination, which can be seen here:

Screen_shot_2013-10-02_at_11

(courtesy of smartfootball.com)

Buffalo’s gameplan:

The Bulls executed a pretty similar plan to what we’ve seen from Towson, Maryland and Michigan. They stayed primarily in their base defense and opted for a heavy dose of blitzing on third down. Buffalo called a variety of stunts up front, which consistently confused UConn’s protections. The Bulls continually threw a five-man rush at Whitmer, who handled it with poise in the first half, but broke down as the game wore on.

The down linemen and linebackers were very stout against the run, often winning the critical one-on-one battles against Husky blockers simply with their physicality. Linebackers Lee Skinner and Adam Redden were very active on the perimeter, as was the highly disruptive Mack.

In key situations, Buffalo threw in a slight formational wrinkle intended to foil UConn’s go-to run play, the Power-O. This schematic change-up was a "Bear front". The Bear front or defense is artfully explained here, but the most basic thing you need to know is that it places a defensive lineman directly over the center and both guards. This makes running the Power-O extremely difficult.

Screen_shot_2013-10-03_at_9

(courtesy of shakinthesouthland.com)

Mack’s varying pre-snap position was another wrinkle. The future NFL first-round pick did mostly wreak havoc primarily from his outside linebacker spot, but also moved inside and even to an interior lineman spot. This kept the Huskies from keying their protections in on Mack, and handed him many favorable matchups.

When UConn ran the ball…

The Huskies primarily ran behind man-blocking last Saturday, and as the stat sheet will tell you, had little success. They were intent on establishing the run early by splitting up McCombs’ usual workload between no. 43 and Delorenzo, who rushed nine times for 20 yards. The running game’s failure stemmed from the same regular rotation of mistakes made by linemen, backs and tight ends and prohibited any sort of consistent success. The line performed worst of all position groups, as the longest run of the day belonged to Foxx on a jet sweep.

When UConn passed the ball…

Yikes.

Geremy Davis was the lone positive here with five catches for 102 yards. He made multiple snags on the Huskies’ only touchdown drive of the game, and then Buffalo put the clamps down on him for most of the second half. The freshmen receivers could hardly gain much separation with their unrefined routes.

Whitmer completed just 10 of 24 pass attempts, took five sacks and threw two interceptions. Only one of the quarterback takedowns was his fault, but neither pick should have left his hand in the first place.

FIRST DRIVE 3 plays, -17 yards, 1:15

The game’s opening drive ended on a third down strip-sack of Whitmer. Bennett was entirely for this turnover, as Weist had called for a pass play that involved a seven-step drop. By the time Whitmer was back with his feet set, he had only 0.6 seconds to get rid of the ball before the eventual pressure came. Knowing his quarterback will be deep in the pocket, Bennett can’t afford to get beat, and then push his man just slightly upfield like he did here.

SECOND DRIVE 11 plays, 59 yards, 1:58

Kokoli repeatedly blew up Mateas on this drive, which was solely kept alive by a pair of Davis receptions and Foxx’s 11-yard scamper. The offensive line got very little push against Buffalo’s front seven that continued to play more physically at the point of attack. The series ended with a made Chad Christen field goal.

THIRD DRIVE 6 plays, 11 yards, 2:47

The Huskies opened with three straight Delorenzo hand-offs that garnered a first down, after Mateas pushed him forward on the final run. Three plays later, Whitmer tossed his first interception in the direction of young wideout John Green. Green ran upfield and broke into what appeared to be a skinny post route on his sixth step, but then quickly made a slight turn towards the sideline.

Simultaneously, his quarterback threw as if the freshman was going to continue his original path, and so the ball then settled into the waiting arms of Najja Johnson. Johnson was playing off-coverage with inside leverage, the perfect technique against intermediate routes like the skinny post. Whitmer failed to realize this, and from what I can also gather, it appears that Green likely ran the wrong route.

Easy pick-six for Buffalo.

FOURTH DRIVE 8 plays, 55 yard, 4:06

This series ended with an eight-yard sack created by Whitmer’s holding onto the football for too long. He nearly threw an interception on the third play of the drive, after two well-blocked runs picked up 10 yards and a first down.

FIFTH DRIVE 7 plays, 40 yards, 3:24

McQuillan hauled into two balls for 29 yards on this drive, as Bennett had a very rough time executing his blocks successfully. McCombs and Delorenzo were forced to bounce outside on two later runs that gained just five yards. Next, a third down screen pass was snuffed out for an incompletion to set up fourth down and an eventually blocked 48-yard field goal attempt.

SIXTH DRIVE 7 plays, 75 yards, 2:34

UConn’s only touchdown drive of the game was sprung by a 10-yard defensive holding penalty, and then furthered by three Davis receptions. The last, a remarkable 34-yarder down the sideline, brought the Huskies down to the Buffalo five. From there, Martin Hyppolite fought for three yards against a Bear front before McCombs won a foot race to the pylon on the following play.

SEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, -13 yards, 1:37

Bull defensive end Beau Bachtelle destroyed both Bennett and Greene as a part of an end-tackle stunt for the first of two Whitmer sacks on this series. Redden next took down the Husky quarterback after cleanly beating a McCombs block in the backfield. An inside hand-off for no gain mercifully ended the drive.

EIGHTH DRIVE 3 plays, -2 yards, 1:22

Mack destroyed Gifford for the final Whitmer sack of the day on second down. Then. the former starting quarterback showcased some happy feet and fired incomplete to Foxx.

NINTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, 0:24

Two thrown pigskins hit the turf in the direction of Parker, one due to lack of arm strength and the other inside pressure. Next, Whitmer inexcusably tried to force the ball to Davis against double-coverage, which predictably resulted in another interception.

TENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, 0:54

ELEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, -3 yards, 1:24

The last two drives executed mostly by the first-team offense consisted of three incomplete passes to freshman Dhameer Bradley and a trio of short runs.

Bottom line: There is lots of work to be done. Clearing space in the running game must be the no. 1 priority, but pass protection is not far behind. Four consecutive opponents have had success penetrating the pocket with basic stunts, and the Huskies shouldn’t expect to see anything different until they block them.

Kevin Friend will do a great deal to help cure most woes, as will the presence of Shakim Phillips on the outside. Then, it’s a matter of all coming together, something the Huskies have done very rarely in 2013.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for all things UConn Football: @UConnFB_Andrew

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