Tale of the Tape: UConn defense vs. Buffalo

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Woof.

We’d love to approach this unit armed the attitude taken yesterday during our look at the offense.

But, we can’t.

The Husky defense was for the large part healthy against Buffalo, and less physical, too. Excluding Obi Melifonwu’s interception, the Bulls scored on three of their first four drives to start the second half with a run to pass ratio of 2:1.

In the passing game, nearly every player in the secondary was burned at least once. The UConn coaches were also out-schemed in the some of biggest Buffalo plays of the day. When it comes to game tapes you’d like to begin a bonfire with, this is right up there with almost all of them.

During their opening loss to Towson, this defense had considerable issues stopping one of the most ancient runs in football: the Power-O. The Tigers ran it on twenty percent of their plays, and all the way to a 15-point victory.

Over their most recent loss to a lesser team, the Huskies couldn't halt a different repeated run and consequently kill many Bulls' drives. This time it was a much more modern design: the outside zone.

Now last week, we previewed Buffalo’s offensive line as perhaps the biggest UConn will see all season. What we forgot to mention is how they could move. When blocking these outside zones, the Bulls did a good job of double-teaming at the point of attack, and gaining hold of UConn linebackers at the second-level, particularly when the Huskies switched to a 3-4 front.

It is a rare game when you don’t see star middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood hunting ball carriers from sideline-to-sideline. Yet, his playmaking was as absent from the city of Buffalo last Saturday as a Bills Super Bowl trophy.

It’s that simple.

Finally, pardon the inducement of déjà vu here, but the pass rush also remains a significant issue. 0 sacks. Little pressure. Big problems ahead when they have to face upper echelon quarterbacks.

Let’s get to the tape:

Keep it up:

Secondary run support

Limiting opposing no. 1 receiver effectiveness (Alex Neutz had 79 yards and a score, but on just two receptions)

Interior run defense

To Fix:

Pass rush

Deep ball defense

Ryan Donohue’s run fits

Gap control against zone runs

UConn’s gameplan

Simply, load the box.

Ty-Meer Brown was down from his strong safety spot to help out against the run quite frequently, except when the Bulls went to spread formations. Overall, Brown did well, racking up 11 tackles. He was a part of the team's usual rotation between 4-3 Over and 3-4 fronts. There was nothing noteworthy in the blitz department.

As expected, the Huskies opened with a heavy dose of Cover One. Neutz stood as Buffalo's line receiving threat, so they should’ve been able to handle the other receivers in man-coverage. Yet, UConn switched predominantly to zone defenses after the third drive, and allowed Licata plenty of time to throw against just four and five-man rushes. The best pressure came on the Bulls second series, a three-and-out. They would only have one more drive like that for the rest of the game.

The zone defenses were mixed well, though most featured either some sort of a three-deep shell.

Buffalo’s gameplan

The Bulls called repeatedly for runs to the outside, and frequently sent Brandon Oliver and co. behind zone blocking. Buffalo refused to engage up the middle with Stephen and Campenni. When passing, the home team loved to take deep shots to the outside. Given that the Huskies were often in single-high or Cover Three defenses, the Bulls had plenty of one-on-one opportunities deep to throw at without worrying about a safety coming over to help out.

Their passing attack was rather simple in its design, but effective. Licata was almost exclusively restricted to half-field reads, and stared down his targets without any consequences.

FIRST DRIVE 5 plays, 8 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Ty-Meer Brown forced Oliver into a total of negative two yards gained on this series, but young corner Jhavon Williams gave the Bulls new life with a defensive holding call that prevented a long third and goal. Licata eventually found Schreck for the score against Melifonwu man-coverage. Neutz dropped a touchdown pass on the previous play working against Byron Jones.

SECOND DRIVE 3 plays, -2 yards, PUNT

Tim Willman did a great job of penetrating into the backfield on back-to-back snaps to deny Oliver runs and set up a third and twelve. Licata, pressured by Reuben Frank and Jesse Joseph, then misfired to Fred Lee to end the drive.

THIRD DRIVE 4 plays, 76 yards, TOUCHDOWN

UConn sat back in a Cover Two zone and was promptly burned by a variation of the Dagger route concept, which sprung Neutz for 54 yards. The star wideout caught a perfectly thrown ball 15 yards downfield on a deep in-route, and then strode for nearly 40 more. Two plays later, Licata flipped the ball to Oliver, who raced 14 yards as the play design's last receiving option. The lead Buffalo runner punched it on the following snap, thanks to a poor run fit from Donohue.

FOURTH DRIVE 5 plays, 62 yards, TOUCHDOWN

A tight end reverse pass and running back screen collectively picked up zero yards, but a Yawin Smallwood pass interference still moved the chains for the Bulls here early. The Huskies called for a slanted rush by their line on the resulting first down, which played right into a zone-blocked outside run that traveled 21 yards. A couple whistles later, Buffalo again out-schemed its visitors with three vertical routes to one side against Cover Three. The outcome: a 22-yard touchdown reception for Neutz, who blew right past Byron Jones.

FIFTH DRIVE 3 plays, 3 yards, PUNT

Strong interior defense halted a pair of Oliver hand-offs and quickly forced a third and five. Licata went deep in Jones’ direction once again, and would’ve thrown an interception had it not been for freshman wideout Boise Ross ripping the ball from his defender’s grip.

SIXTH DRIVE 4 plays, 22 yards, MISSED FG

Shortly before the half ended, Oliver moved his team 22 yards on a dump-off pass reception and well executed draw play where both guards secured blocks on the second-level. The Bulls failed to move forward afterward, and consequently sent on their place kicker Patrick Clarke, who missed from 41 yards.

SEVENTH DRIVE 9 plays, 31 yards, PUNT

Buffalo ran seven times and completed one pass before Licata failed to connect with Lee on the final third down that welcomed the punt team. Brown was very active in run defense, as the Huskies didn’t allow a runner to travel for more than 4 yards at a time on this series.

EIGHTH DRIVE 10 plays, 26 yards, FIELD GOAL

The Bulls continued to nickel-and-dime their way downfield, though this time with much more balance. Another deep shot at Jones fell incomplete, but the Huskies allowed the drive to keep its pulse via a couple short completions and one outside Oliver run that got loose. When it was all said and done, Clarke knocked in a 49-yard field goal.

NINTH DRIVE 5 plays, 19 yards, FIELD GOAL

Four straight Oliver runs preceded another good Clarke kick, which was good this time from 50 yards. Donohue struggled again with his run fits on this series.

TENTH DRIVE 1 plays, 0 yards, INTERCEPTION

Obi Melifonwu reeled in his team-leading second interception on the year as the single, roaming safety that went unseen by Licata, who took another deep shot.

ELEVENTH DRIVE 9 plays, 64 yards, TOUCHDOWN

The Bulls ran eight straight times prior to Lee's 36-yard touchdown catch that left Williams choking on his dust. The sick part wasn’t that this was the only pass of the series. It’s that of the eight hand-offs, only two went for more than five yards.

TWELFTH DRIVE 4 plays, 7 yards, MISSED FG

THIRTEENTH DRIVE 6 plays, 15 yards, PUNT

Back-up quarterback Alex Zordich led the remaining drives, which were largely hand-off drills for the former Bulls starter.

Bottom line: After four games, it appears that the quality of this unit likely lies somewhere between the stellar defense that stifled Michigan, and this effort showcased last Saturday. The potential is there, but ultimately these Huskies are what they are by this mark of the season. Health will be the biggest factor in determining whether they rise to their ceiling, or hit the floor again.

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

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