Towson: A scouting report

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

More than you ever wanted to know about UConn's 2013 opening opponent.

The day is finally here.

The season opener of the long-awaited, do-or-get-your-ass-canned year three of the Paul Pasqualoni era has arrived.

Tonight, UConn country will at last be able turn the page from 5-7.

Upon kickoff, the Huskies will break free from all the off-season talk, worry and frustration to sprint downfield and clash with…. Towson.

Simply. Scintillating.

Okay, so the toughest schedule in UConn football history starts with a slow wheeze rather than a bang; nothing we haven’t known since the schedule was released many moons ago.

Now, given the widely held assumption that Towson will be crushed into bits, hardly anyone will bother to venture to learn about 2013’s first opponent. That’s fine. We’ve done the 1,800 word legwork on what kind of product the Towson Tigers will be putting out tonight under fifth-year head coach and former UConn assistant, Rob Ambrose.

But, before we do that, let’s get you caught up on our FCS friends.

2012 season: 7-4 (6-2 CAA) Co-conference champions

Fresh off of a miraculous makeover that warped them from 1-10 slouches into 9-3 CAA champions in 2011, the Tigers had high hopes one year ago at this exact time. The team had scheduled two FBS opponents early in their year, Kent State and LSU, both of whom they eventually lost to. However, their loss to the Tigers of Death Valley was only by a margin of two scores. In fact, due to its strong running game and sturdy defense, Towson was actually competitive for most of the ballgame.

These two hallmarks are what made them successful for the rest of the season.

Afterward, Towson moved onto conference play with a record of 2-2, when they dropped a 13-10 contest to no. 5 James Madison. Two weeks later, they let slip another close call to no. 7 Old Dominion. Mired then at 3-4 (thanks to a sandwiched victory over Maine), they finished their 2012 campaign with a four-game win streak that toppled two future FCS playoff teams. The Tigers, on the other hand, did not earn one of the sixteen post-season berths, which are handed out by an NCAA committee.

Statistically, the 2012 Towson story is best told like this:

- 229 rush yards/ game (13th in FCS)

- 441 yards offense / game (15th in FCS)

- 34:02 average time of possession

- No. 1 defense in the CAA in yards allowed

Offense

The Tigers run a multiple attack that at its core is looking to run the ball straight down your throat. Last year, Towson kept the ball across the line of scrimmage 460 times, compared to the 318 instances that they threw it. The unit’s strengths lie in a very strong offensive line and last year, a good stable of running backs. The team lost its second through fourth leading rushers from 2012, but it does welcome back Terrance West to the backfield. West will be relied on like a workhorse this season, just as any pre-season All-American should.

The junior is a highly dynamic runner who scored an incomprehensible 29 touchdowns as a freshman, and last year, ran for 1,046 yards on 195 carries. He possesses great speed, instincts and quickness—not to mention ideal tailback size at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds. If anyone is going to hurt the Huskies tonight offensively, it will be West.

Correction. It will be West behind fellow first-team All-CAA member Emmannuel Holder, the squad’s fullback. This guy is a rock. Holder will also be blocking for second-stringer Sterlin Phifer, who mustered 240 yards on 55 rushes a season ago.

When running, Towson predominantly utilizes a man-blocking scheme that quite often has its athletic linemen out on the move. Tackles Eric Pike and Randall Harris are excellent, as Pike landed on the preseason FCS All-American second team and Harris the All-CAA first-group. Inside, undersized center Doug Shaw has started 28 of the last 29 Towson games, while Anthony Davis returns as a starter at left guard. Right guard Jake Schunke is the new guy. He has yet to earn a career start, but did see time in a handful of 2012 contests.

The way the Tigers are still able to hand the ball off successfully, when opponents know they want to again and again, is through a variety of run types (power, belly, weakside, tosses, quarterback powers, read-option and read-dives) called from an even greater assortment of formations. Last season, Ambrose called for sets that included shotgun, pistol, I-form, singleback under center, two-man backfields and more.

The number of personnel groups they employ is a bit smaller, as Towson prefers to use 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) most often. Four wide receiver groupings and 21 personnel (2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE) sets not far behind. When they do march out three wide receivers, the team is nearly 50/50 with its run to pass ratio. However, when they deploy either fewer or more wideouts, the fraction becomes rather skewed in the direction you’d expect.

Now, the receivers you’ll see out there tonight at the Rent are not those who caught balls for this club last year. Junior Spencer Wilkins is the only top-six pass catcher from 2012 to step back onto campus this fall. He’s now joined by a handful of freshmen and the team’s best returners: UConn transfer Leon Kinnard, whose receiving impact at Towson has been marginal, and Derrick Joseph. Joseph is speedy, but his ability as a pass catcher has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, tight end James Oboh is a capable receiver who battled injury last year. He hauled in just nine passes, but also scored twice, including once in the team’s game against Kent St.

Finally, the man orchestrating the offense will be fifth-year quarterback Peter Athens. Athens has played second fiddle the last few seasons after battling a gruesome knee injury early in his career. In 2011, he did make one start against Maryland, which showcased a 17-29 and 217 yard performance. It’s also very possibly that Athens will split time with the current back-up, sophomore Connor Frazier, who is described as very mobile - a trait that fits this offense very well.

UCONN KEY TO SUCCESS: As with many clubs who predicate their offense on running the ball, the key to stopping Towson is winning on early downs. Last year, the Tigers converted on 50 percent of their third downs - an unheard of figure. This was only possible, however, because they set themselves with positive plays on first and second.

The Huskies must force them into third-and-mediums or worse, where the Tigers will struggle to throw against the UConn back seven. Creating difficult third downs can be accomplished by consistently keeping strong run contain on the outside. Ends Jesse Joseph and Tim Willman must be able to funnel West back to the inside where Shamar Stephen and company can clean up. Expect Stephen to have a big game this evening, and Yawin Smallwood to feast as well.

Defense

On the other side of the ball lies a similar story.

The Tiger defense returns a solid seven first-teamers, which includes all but one of last year’s starting secondary and linebacking core. In the trenches, defensive tackle Arnold Farmer is the lone starter with experience. Schematically, Towson likes to attack with five-man pressures, change up between zone coverages and slant along its line. Personnel-wise, defensive coordinator Matt Hachmann largely prefers to keep the same group out there on most downs, and rely on his first-team’s versatility.

The fronts of this defense may appear different, but their presnap alignments don’t so much change as does the stance of the unit’s "Leo" player (AKA hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker). Towson will of course adjust accordingly to opponents’ formations, as all teams do, but the majority of their looks will be the same: At least three defensive linemen, always their three linebackers, four secondary players and the "Leo" or an extra defensive back.

The Tigers’ favorite coverages are fire zones (five-man rush, three short zones, three deep zones), Tampa 2 and Cover 3. Seldom will they play man coverage, though when they do, their most popular call is Cover 0 or an all-out blitz. Speaking of blitzes, the most common place you’ll find an extra Tiger coming for Whitmer will be the strongside. The reiginging CAA-champs love blitzing towards the tight end side of the formation, specifically with a slot cornerback.

Towson does a good job of disguising its defensive playcalls, often rotating a safety back at the last second before the snap of the ball. Hachmann is able to install these added complexities thanks to a veteran back seven that is led by the team’s best position group, the linebackers.

All-CAA first-teamer Monte Gaddis is the headliner here, even at 5-foot-11, 206 pounds, as Pasqualoni even remarked that he could play for many FBS schools. Gaddis returns alongside Telvion Clark and Bryntonn Barr, two starters from a year ago. Collectively, the ‘backers are all undersized, which suits the defensive scheme that calls for them to often drop into zones. Clark packs the biggest wallop of the bunch, while Brynton Barr may be their best cover guy.

Behind its star trio, Towson boasts the top corners in their conference with Tye Smith and former Georgia Bulldog Jordan Love. Smith is an excellent tackler, while Love, who actually saw the field during his time in Athens, led the team in interceptions in 2012. The pair will be a decent test for Geremy Davis and Shakim Phillips, who should aim to attack the safety spots. Thomas Bradley and sophomore Walt Dunston, the lone newbie in the back seven, patrol the deepest part of the field.

The aforementioned Farmer is a load up front at 6-foot-1, 325 pounds, but he doesn’t impress much overall on film. He often plays high, and ends up on the ground far too much for one’s liking. Though, the junior does own adequate quickness for a big man, and his one pass rush move to watch for is a strong rip. Meanwhile, he’ll be flanked by fellow 300-pounder and sophomore John Desir, in addition to ends Ryan Delaire and Greg Grant. Delaire is a UMass transfer and Grant is an undersized junior at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds. He’ll likely hold the versatile "Leo" position.

UCONN KEY TO SUCCESS: Tonight, the Huskies’ focus should be greater on executing their new offense rather than exploiting Towson’s defense. They just need to block to assignment, run crisp routes, hit the available running lane and find the open man. Now, the Towson-tailored part of the gameplan ought to call for a a lot of Hi-Lo concepts in the passing game. This will stretch the zone coverages the Tigers play almost exclusively, and force their linebackers into tough spots.

PREDICTION: UConn 33 Towson 13

Follow Andrew on Twitter for all things UConn Football, including live coverage of tonight’s game from Rentschler field: @UCONNFB_Andrew

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