Despite living in a culture fueled by the phrase "we're going to take things one day at a time", the UConn football team actually discussed letting go of the Maryland game before the clock struck triple zeroes last Saturday night.
Now, this isn’t to say the team gave up against the Terrapins before the contest actually ended— because this chat came prior to kickoff. In fact, it even happened before the Huskies’ opener against Towson. This talk, of looking ahead and moving on, was held in the team’s pre-season.
As told this afternoon by Paul Pasqualoni, UConn coaches have long preached to their players about making a quick turnaround this week. When the schedule was released and team leadership first glanced at its all-time difficult slate, they acknowledged that a rare exception to their everyday method and mindset was going to be needed this mid-September.
Yes, the team was still going to find whatever errors it made against the Terrapins on tape, address them and then focus on the next opponent. But, when your next foe is the all-time winningest program in Division-1 football, you hurry like Hell to prepare for them as much as possible. And that’s exactly what the Huskies have done to get ready for no. 15 Michigan, who will pay them a visit this Saturday under the bright lights on national television.
Hail to the Visitors
During his address to the first question asked about the Wolverines, Pasqualoni complimented their every position group and summarized by saying Michigan is a very talented team that will be "a big challenge for us". In particular, he lauded quarterback Devin Gardner as a guy who can beat teams both with his arm and his legs. Later, the coach commented that left tackle Taylor Lewan is perhaps the best in college football. Lewan is expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, just as he was in 2013 before deciding to return for one more season in Ann Arbor.
Gardner and Lewan are key cogs for an explosive Wolverine offense that the UConn coach described as "very multiple". Pasqualoni remarked multiple times that Michigan runs a lot of two-back sets with power plays, in addition to a two tight end system and a more wide open, three-receiver playbook. He touched upon their talented tight ends that Big Blue coaches will put out wide to spread out opponents. Finally, Michigan’s also apparently makes good use of play-action passes and zone reads.
According to the university, 2,200 extra seats have been added to Rentschler Field for Saturday night’s game, which is now officially sold out. Pasqualoni called for "all hands on deck" from fans in attendance to provide a strong home field advantage. He revealed that he’s hoping the seniors realize how special the opportunity is to play a quality opponent at home on ABC television.
"I don’t know how or when it gets any better than that"
Right tackle Kevin Friend, linebacker Graham Stewart and wide receiver Shakim Phillips are all officially questionable for UConn this weekend.
Phillips told the media today that he expects to play against the Wolverines, after sustaining a pulled hamstring on his late 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Maryland. However, Pasqualoni remarked that players in Phillips' position frequently overrate how "good to go" they are.
Friend is dealing with a high ankle sprain he suffered last Saturday night during a run play in the first quarter. Friend exited the field for a few series, before returning for one drive that ended with the senior giving up a sack. He left afterward for the remainder of the contest.
Stewart is also attempting to heal from an ankle sprain, and should he fail to recover in time, Jefferson Ashiru will take his place in the starting line up. Ashiru racked up five tackles and a fumble recovery once he came off the bench against Maryland.
Center Tyler Bullock played thirteen snaps at guard against Maryland having recovered from a bad ankle himself. According to coach, he graded out very well during film review. Barring a setback, he's very likely to play against Michigan.
Tough luck against the Terrapins
Similar to the previous instances he’d spoken to the media or public this week, Pasqualoni continued to hammer home that last Saturday’s outcome would’ve been drastically different had it not been for a few poor plays.
"The thing that’s bothering us is number one, there’s an assignment mistake here and there… then, technique hasn’t been good on a few plays," he said.
Overall, he likes where the run defense is, particularly the play of defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Julian Campenni. The plays in which opponents have had success running against the Huskies typically stemed from fundamental mistakes. UConn's outside run contain has seen the most frequent breakdowns, including during the 41-yard touchdown scamper by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown, a play Pasqualoni mentioned specifically.
Meanwhile, the Huskies are the only team in FBS college football yet to register a sack, though according to coach, the pressure has been there. The issue instead has been finishing those plays.
"Tackle. We have to tackle." Pasqualoni preached.
"We must’ve missed the guy (Brown) five times in the backfield… could’ve had four or five sacks last week."
"No quick fix"
For the second straight week, fingers have been pointed all across UConn country at the offensive line as the primary reason that the Huskies’ have struggled to move the ball. With the continued absence of Friend, opponents have attacked this group with success along its right side, specifically sophomore back-up tackle Xavier Hemingway. Going forward, Pasqualoni said Dalton Gifford could see time in his stead, though Hemingway is considered more developed than the team’s other young linemen.
"Xavier is a good, athletic big guy…I think there are some good young players in there…in our opinion, Xavier is far enough along… On the offensive line there is absolutely no quick fix."
To be fair, every block is not thrown by any one team’s offensive line. The wide receivers, running backs and tight ends must do their part to clear running lanes and protect the quarterback. In UConn’s case, there is also room to improve for these position groups, especially when the Huskies run the ball.
"Well, it’s a combination of the guys up front, which includes the wide receivers and tight ends finishing their blocks…and Lyle hitting the hole better and staying frontside."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke speaks
"We’re going to get everyone’s best shot… they did a great job of being prepared… I need to do a better job of preparing this team.... We have to do a better job of coaching."
"They’re a big football team, they’re a physical football team…their quarterback is very accurate with the football, throws a nice skinny post…McCombs is very impressive with the ball. Defensively with them, we’re going to have our hands full up front."
"I don’t think I would consider (UConn) lesser opponent… Early in the year, we’re all trying to get our feet underneath us…"
On practicing in full pads 24 hours after the Akron game:
"I thought we needed to get back to fundamentals…back to technique…we need to improve…we didn’t do that Saturday, so we needed to make up for that the next day."
When asked about what Akron did against the Wolverines, Pasqualoni talked about tackling well and covering their receivers well downfield. He added that Michigan did turn the ball over, but Akron on the whole did a good job of executing its gameplan and making offensive plays.
At one time, Pasqualoni likened Gardner to Donovan McNabb for his ability to scramble and buy himself time to throw the ball. McNabb once played for Pasqualoni at Syracuse.