Let’s skip the game of which you’d rather hear first, and hit you with the good news:
This unit showed significant improvement against Maryland, and will be the best offense of the Paul Pasqualoni era.
No longer is Chandler Whitmer imagining pressure, in fact he’s standing strong to defy it. The receivers gained better separation and made tough catches against physical defensive backs. Pass protection against basic blitzes was much better coordinated.
Now, the bad news:
Just as anyone who left Rentschler field kicking crushed beer cans en route to their car would’ve told you last Saturday night, this UConn offense still has a lot of work to do.
A. Freakin’. Lot.
After charting every snap from last weekend, each starter and position group was at fault for multiple poor plays against the Terrapins, which renders any quick-fix or single solution for the Huskies' problems impossible. Everyone has to get better, and for the most part they all can (we've already seen this happen from the Towson game, most demonstrably with both Whitmer and Phillips). Though there a few, at least at present time, who will be unable to do so fast enough.
Right now, UConn’s right tackle position is a revolving door with a towering, 300-pound doorman. As a result of multiple injuries to steady starter Kevin Friend, sophomore back-up Xavier Hemingway has stepped in and been hounded by opponents each game without fail. He allowed multiple sacks to Towson’s Bryan Delaire, and last week it was Marcus Whitfield’s turn to take a spin. Hemingway has also missed assignments in the run game, and overall, just isn’t fit to see significant snaps this season.
The health of Friend, who's currently listed as "questionable" for the Michigan game, is paramount. His absence hurts UConn not only from a physical blocking perspective, but a play-calling one. With Hemingway in the game, offensive coordinator T.J. Weist is forced to frequently send a back or tight end as help to his side. In fact, coach Pasqualoni has said he may soon turn to third-stringer Dalton Giffford.
Not nearly as hazardous to the potential for Husky offensive success is center Alex Mateas, who’s struggled this season, particularly with larger defensive tackles. The former Penn State transfer has improved from 2012, when he was the weak spot along the line. Maryland’s Darius Kilgo drove him back early and often on Saturday, though to be fair, Kilgo is a very good player in his own right. Yet, one wonders how long it will be before a healthy, heavier Tyler Bullock re-assumes his starting position from a year ago.
With those thoughts in mind long-term, we now take a look back at Maryland.
Keep it up:
Spreading the ball around
Hello, Shakim Phillips!
Whitmer’s pocket presence
The revolving right tackle door
Red zone execution
McCombs’ vision issues
Not surprisingly, UConn stuck predominantly with its best package of 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, one tight end) against Maryland. The Huskies employed some two tight end sets early in the game to aid their running attack, but basic blocking failures caused a change in plans. Spencer Parker was the first tight end off the bench, and he rotated with McQuillan as the starter in the second half.
At receiver, Dhameer Bradley and John Green both saw snaps in Phillips’ brief stays on the sidelines. Bradley was utilized solely a hitch screen that he was only able to take for about a foot due to poor blocking by Deshon Foxx. Green hauled in a pair of passes at the game’s end. In the backfield, Max DeLorenzo picked up three carries, mostly in short-yardage situations. Finally, Bullock replaced right guard Gus Cruz for the last 13 plays of the game and played rather well.
On the Huskies' first 10 plays from scrimmage, Weist dialed up nearly just as many different formations. UConn was very aggressive in trying to force Maryland to show its hand in how it wanted to defend their various looks. For the most part, the Terrapins stayed in their base 3-4 defense, but they did sprinkle in some looks with extra defensive backs.
UConn enjoyed brief success running against these kinds of defense, which Maryland then largely and smartly abandoned on early downs. As the night dragged on, Whitmer could commonly be found in the shotgun with a single back to his right or left. When the Huskies went to two backs, it was usually to provide maximum pass protection. There was also a heavy tendency when UConn deployed three receiving options to one side and a single wideout to the other.
More often than not, the ensuing play was a throw to the single wideout, Shakim Phillips, who the Huskies targeted multiples times on slants and skinny posts. He scored his 75-yard touchdown from a "3x1" formation while running a skinny post.
Blitz. Blitz. Blitz.
The Terrapins ran a myriad of pressures at the Huskies in all kinds of situations with linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Maryland was able to stifle first and second down runs frequently a crossfire X blitz (shown below). They ran this five-man pressure at least six times in the game with inside linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree.
The constant blitzing set out to accomplish a number of things, but namely stop the run and attack the two linemen we referenced above. Mateas became very busy and at times overwhelmed from blocking or passing off the inside linebackers. Farrands and Goree were huge pains in the neck for UConn all game, as instinctive players tend to be.
Meanwhile, Hemingway was forced into one-on-one situations because his teammates were occupied blocking their own rushers. Another reason for the heavy dosage of pressure is likely because Maryland didn’t see a Husky receiver who could necessarily burn them deep. So, they were comfortable sending multiple six and even seven-man blitzes with man coverage behind them.
FIRST DRIVE 3 plays, 5 yards, 1:22
Uninspiring start. UConn opened the game with a tough drop by Sean McQuillan, an inside zone run for four yards and Whitmer hurrying a one-yard pass to McCombs in the flat, despite having more options and time to throw. From this view, he was likely (and very logically) anticipating a blitz, but it simply didn’t come.
SECOND DRIVE 6 plays, 54 yards, 2:07
If you were to think up the perfect drive for UConn’s 2013 offense, this next series would probably be it.
Completed in just over two minutes, the drive saw five different Huskies with the ball in their hands, and a variety of formations and personnel groupings. To begin, Whitmer remained calm against a corner blitz before firing a quick throw to Geremy Davis. McCombs ate up lots of open field on the following play, a screen pass against deep zone coverage. Shakim Phillips then caught his first pass for 21 yards. Max DeLorenzo picked up only one yard over the next snap, but could’ve had a lot more were it not for a good play by Kilgo pushing Mateas backwards.
On a jet sweep to the shortside of the field, Deshon Foxx used his speed to gain the corner and six yards, which set up a third and short from the five yardline. From there, Lyle McCombs notched a first down, and then was pushed into the endzone amidst a huge pile up. Jimmy Bennett did a nice job of releasing to the second level and nullifying a linebacker, as did Davis.
THIRD DRIVE 4 plays, 30 yards, 1:29
This was the drive Friend suffered his ankle sprain. After a quick hand-off, McCombs danced in the backfield and allowed Kilgo to make a play on him for little gain. The Huskies followed the short scamper with another. Kilgo and other Maryland defensive linemen did a nice job of tying up UConn blockers on this run, so their linebackers could clean up McCombs. On third down, Whitmer hit Phillips on a curl route just past the first down marker. He showed tremendous pocket presence against another blitz that nearly got home.
With a new set of downs, Whitmer and Phillips faked a stop route at eight yards and went deep. But, Maryland corner Dexter McDougle didn’t bite, and instead was in perfect position to first force Phillips out of bounds, and second, make an athletic play for his first interception. Good idea, poor mid-play decision and execution.
FOURTH DRIVE 3 plays, 3 yards, 1:30
One of the worst Husky drives on the night started with another Foxx jet sweep that gained little due to poor field vision on the junior's part. A second down power run behind an extra tackle and tight end went for even less because Bennett and Michael Boland were turned sideways by their defenders. The Terrapins then created inside pressure with a tackle-end stunt to force an incompletion and consequently, a three-and-out.
FIFTH DRIVE 11 play, 37 yards, 5:16
This series featured a couple crossfire x blitzes, a lot of help to Hemingway and poor first down running. After an inexcusable delay of game penalty and stuffed inside run, Whitmer received great protection and zipped a long pass to Foxx to move the chains. Next, completions to McQuillan and Phillips sandwiched a measly McCombs rush on second down, though the three plays combined to gain 10 yards.
Soon afterward, a third down pass to Geremy Davis bailed the Huskies out, but more specifically, Mateas, Hemingway and Steve Greene, who allowed Maryland penetration to crush two Husky runs. Despite facing just a three-man rush, Hemingway nearly gave up a sack on the Davis completion.
On the following second down, Whitmer nearly threw a pick against a safety blitz. He attempted to move deep safety Sean Davis away from his intended target with his eyes, before releasing the ball, but didn't succeed. Thus, Davis nearly hauled in the errant pass intended for Phillips, who was running a post to the middle of the field. Against a four-man rush on third and eleven, Whitfield beat Hemingway one-on-one for a sack that put Huskies out of field goal range.
SIXTH DRIVE 3 plays, -7 yards, 1:55
Another four-man pass rush got to Whitmer to end this three-and-out, which opened with a strong completion to Davis. On the final play, the Terps generated good outside pressure against both tackles, though Bennett was able to contain his man, Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil. On the right side, Hemingway’s protection on Whitfield wasn’t as sturdy. Upon being pressured, Whitmer immediately spun away from Whitfield and upfield. This gave Cudjoe-Virigl an easy angle to shed Bennett and make an easy sack of 13 yards.
SEVENTH DRIVE 9 plays, 46 yards, 3:50
Three excellent things commenced this drive: Phillips setting UConn up with a nice kickoff return, Friend stepping back out onto the field and McCombs gashing the Maryland defense for 14 yards on the first snap. The Terps were in a nickel defense without Kilgo, so the Huskies blocked exceedingly well up front. Maryland was rarely found in a nickel after this, except obvious passing situations. The Huskies next ran to the strongside of a two tight end formation, but someone missed an assignment, and Goree tackled McCombs behind the line of scrimmage. The offensive line provided great protection on the following play, when Whitmer stepped into a clean pocket and stuck an accurate ball to Foxx on a corner route. Quick throws to McQuillan and Foxx then produced a first and goal.
Now inside the redzone, the Huskies failed to punch it in for a score—just as they did against Towson. Running behind a two tight end set on first down, McCombs missed a great opportunity to bounce outside and very likely cash in for six. His unusually poor vision was no more costly than on this series.
A quarterback draw call on the subsequent play was indeed surprising, but more importantly Weist's call was very ineffective from nine yards away against a defense that heavily favors zone coverage. Finally, on his last snap of the game, Friend allowed a Whitfield sack on a speed rush right around the corner.
This series was beyond critical, as not only would it have probably given the Huskies a lead going into halftime, but kept them within one score towards the end of the game.
EIGHTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, 0:55
UConn’s final drive prior to intermission was highlighted by a controversial pass interference non-call, which came after a six-man blitz from Maryland. Despite the oncoming pressure, Whitmer quickly shot the ball downfield to Phillips, who after further review could very well earn a minor in drama. He flopped towards the sideline after minimal defensive contact, but the spill wasn’t a half bad idea given that the throw was going to be beyond anyone’s reach. Previous to this third down, Maryland had stonewalled a first down run by going straight through Greene and Hemingway.
NINTH DRIVE 7 plays, 28 yards, 2:13
McCombs gained a hard earned five yards on an outside run play to open the half, despite an oncoming Whitfield who had just shredded a blocking tight end. Next, Phillips moved the chains with a reception on a crisp, eight-yard curl route. Two snaps later, Whitmer rifled a phenomenal throw on the run to his leading receiver, who finished the play with a spectacular sideline catch.
Three straight blitzes brought to a close any forward progress from that point on. The Huskies were their own enemy on third down, as they failed to recognize a clear overload blitz, which got in cleanly before they could counter perfectly with the called screen. Had Whitmer and co. taken their time pre-snap, that play had a chance to perhaps go the distance.
TENTH DRIVE 4 plays, 24 yards, 1:26
It was all downhill from the 23-yard first down completion to Phillips, who found a soft spot against a cover two zone blitz. UConn deployed consecutive two-back formations that gave way to an incomplete pass and a stunted run caused by a missed block by freshman fullback Matt Walsh. Maryland rushed six Terps on third down, and Whitmer fired off the mark to Phillips on a route that was run too short anyways.
ELEVENTH DRIVE 4 plays, 14 yards, 1:26
From the Terrapins’ 31-yardline, Whitmer defied Maryland pressure again to find Phillips. Now back inside the red zone, the Huskies mustered just one yard on all of an outside run, poorly executed screen pass and incomplete fade to the endzone. Mateas, McCombs and Whitmer were the respective culprits on these plays.
TWELFTH DRIVE 4 plays, 28 yards, 2:06
Here was the pick-six. Three short gains preceded a pass interference call, and then, the game-changer. The Terrapins brought a corner blitz that was blocked, but UConn's junior quarterback stared Phillips down and threw the ball right to a waiting McDougle, who was happy to take the ball back to the house.
THIRTEENTH DRIVE 5 play, 19 yards, 1:36
Not a single pass is thrown at Phillips this drive as Whitmer finds McQuillan twice, watches DeLorenzo pick up a first down and tosses two incompletions at Davis. Maryland rushed seven men on the final snap of the series.
FOURTEENTH DRIVE 3 play, 9 yards, 0:58
Phillips reels in two passes on this drive, but can’t manage a first down as he runs a yard and a half shy of the sticks on the final play. While the team was still down two scores, these are the kind of mistakes winning football teams simply don’t make.
FIFTEENTH DRIVE 3 play, -2 yards, 1:16
The sad nail in the coffin. Backed up against their own goal line, the Huskies create some breathing room with a play-action throw to Geremy Davis and marginal run by McCombs. On third down, Hemingway was wholly responsible for the pressure on Whitmer that led to his safety. The sophomore tackle had no help in protection, meaning he had to be responsible for the man aligned widest on his side. This was Whitfield, who went untouched to the quarterback. On the flip side, Whitmer could have avoided a safety by falling down shy of the goal line, but he instinctively hurried backwards to further attempted to make a play instead.
SIXTEENTH DRIVE 1 play, 75 yards, 0:22
Phillips’ 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run came when he was once again isolated as the lone receiver on the right side. Maryland brought just a four-man rush, played zone behind it and Whitmer found his man on a skinny post. The Boston College transfer did the rest, before unfortunately pulling a hamstring as he scored. UConn’s two-point conversion was successful on a fade to Davis.
SEVENTEENTH DRIVE 7 play, 31 yards, 2:03
Three straight completions started the Huskies final series, including a pair to freshman John Green for 22 yards. Good coverage on the subsequent three plays induced an incompletion, five-yard throw to Foxx and a sack. Whitmer was then crunched on the Huskies’ final offensive snap, when Jimmy Bennett was beaten cleanly by Cudjoe-Virgil,.
Bottom line: The margin of error for this offense thus far is small, given the lack of explosion and inconsistent line play. And that will shrink to almost zero if Friend and/or Phillips can't go Saturday night. But overall, the tools are in place to fix their woes and successfully spread the ball around. McCombs will bounce back, and the pass protection at times has been very good. It may just be a matter of continuing to make progress, and then they'll really hit their stride come conference play.
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