Tale of the Tape: UConn Defense vs. Maryland Offense

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

UConn allowed over 500 yards of offense to Maryland, but also held the Terrapins explosive offense to 23 points. Which tells the better story of last Saturday night?

Some people will tell you that stats lie.

I’ll tell you that those people are wrong, and no number can speak either truthfully or in deceit.

Instead, in whatever the case may be, it is always someone's understanding, or lack thereof, of the figures and their context that fibs.

So, when the UConn defense gave up 501 yards of total offense to Maryland, people saw that figure and immediately wanted to compare the unit to swiss cheese. Then, on second thought, some opted not to because they felt it’d be a disservice to the dairy.

Now, I’m not here to tell you the Huskies were defensive world-beaters last Saturday night. But, what I am here to say is that number, 501 yards, is a terrible gauge of their performance, which wasn't half-bad. In fact, "total yards" is perhaps the roughest numerical measure of any that determines the job done by a football team, because of how easily it can be skewed.

Case in point, here’s another total number to throw you for a loop:

Chandler Whitmer threw for a career-high 349 yards against the Terrapins.

Who thinks he now deserves an A for the game? A-? B+?

The reason "total yards" is so popular is because the figure easy to calculate, it's traditional and usually does at least an OK job of what its designed to do. This brings us back to another OK job done, which belonged to the UConn defense. If we were again hand out alphabetical grades, I’d probably give it a B-. Why?

Did you know the heralded passing attack of C.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs and co. only competed 15 of 28 throws against a depleted Husky secondary? How about the fact that Maryland produced just as many first downs as UConn? Or, as Paul Pasqualoni told the press last Tuesday, the Huskies were just a few plays away from turning that game around?

This isn’t to say the numbers I put forth above are perfect measures – they're not even close. Yet, the source of Pasqualoni's information is the one you can always count on to deliver with a well-rounded, accurate picture: the tape.

So, without further adieu, here is this week’s UConn defense Tale of the Tape.

Keep it up:

Interior run defense

All Yawin Smallwood everything

Red zone play

To Fix:

Interior pass rush

Outside technique on read-option

Linebacker zone drops

UConn’s gameplan

In four words: Keep everyone in front.

The Huskies did not blitz once against Maryland, and played man-coverage fewer times than you can count on one hand. They seemed almost terrified of allowing big plays downfield to Diggs and Long, perhaps the best wide receiver combination in the ACC. Given their depth problems at defensive back, the UConn coaches had good reason to feel that way.

The Huskies’ dominant coverage on the night was quarters, a defense that covers the deepest part of the field with four different players who are each responsible for a fourth or quarter of the area. Next was cover two, a common coverage that Maryland was ready to exploit and did successfully on a couple instances.

UConn bounced from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 throughout the evening, a switch they made for good in the second half against Towson. The personnel was still the same, (four linemen and three linebackers) but they moved Shamar Stephen over the center, the linemen on either side of him across the tackles and the remaining defensive end to a stand up position as if he were a linebacker.

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UConn’s execution

While big plays were ultimately what cost the Huskies this game, they wasn’t so much a schematic failure as it was a couple missed assignments and poor technique. Diggs and Long did their damage behind the zones of the UConn linebackers, who frequently bit on play-action and were thus constantly backing up upon a throw. Furthermore, these routes had time to develop as the Huskies had little success getting to Brown with just a four-man rush. While a total of only a couple of pressures may seem utterly disappointing (and to some degree it was), this lack of pass rush was also likely a part of the gameplan. UConn had to rush Brown carefully, otherwise he'd scramble and make big plays with his feet.

In the running game, both the outside linebackers and defensive ends could have done a better job technique-wise to hem in read-options. Smallwood was fantastic, ranging sideline-to-sideline to stop Maryland runs and the defensive tackles were very stout. More on all of this later.

Maryland’s gameplan

When running, Maryland executed a lot of the same things they normally do. There was plenty of read-option, belly read-option, an occasional inverted veer, outside zones and some power runs. They wanted to attack the contain of the UConn defense, which they did successfully.

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40 percent of all Maryland throws came off play-action, which again, helped open up space behind the UConn linebackers who seemed in retreat more often than the French. The Huskies showed poor recognition of run fakes in their game against Towson and again versus the Terrapins.

Mid-game, the Maryland coaching staff realized that the Huskies didn't want to dip into their shoddy depth at secondary, and were going to stick with their base 4-3 personnel almost no matter what. So, they spread the hefty defense out with four-wide receiver packages, and created mismatches in the passing game that were only taken advantage in a few instances.

Maryland’s execution

The Terps left a couple touchdowns on the field, but on the whole still played a better slightly game than the Huskies. Outside of a couple miscues with option reads, Brown threw a nice ball almost all night, which hit the ground a couple times due to wide receiver drops. Both running backs, Brandon Ross and Albert Reid, fumbled, but ran hard as the offensive line performed very well in all areas.

FIRST DRIVE 4 plays, 6 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS

Until fourth down, the Terrapins’ opening drive was all about Yawin Smallwood. On the first play from scrimmage, the UConn middle linebacker nearly snagged himself an interception and then saved a first down by Ross on a read-option. Facing a third and short, Smallwood teamed with Campenni, who impressively came off his block to halt a designed quarterback run. On fourth down, Pruitt burst through untouched due to an assignment mistake on right side of the Terrapin line and threw Ross back for a loss. Had the Terps even blocked Pruitt, it wouldn’t have mattered because Willman penetrated into the backfield behind him on the playside.

SECOND DRIVE 3 plays, -3 yards, PUNT

Smallwood continued his fine start with a nice tackle in space on a belly read-option play that was poorly executed by Brown. Second down called for a regular speed option to the left, where a pitch to Ross was mishandled and simultaneously, the Maryland back got hammered by Taylor Mack. In fact, the Huskies should have been awarded the ball here, but the referees incorrectly ruled Ross had possession as he went to the ground. Frank and Joseph stepped up on the third and final play with a solid outside pass rush that forced Brown to his left and a throw incomplete.

THIRD DRIVE 4 plays, 61 yards, INTERCEPTION

In a preview of coming attractions, the Terrapins opened this series with a few big plays to quickly set themselves up quickly in UConn territory. The Huskies showed their first 3-4 front of the night on first down, when Diggs picked up 26 yards on a beautifully thrown play-action pass. Another run-fake followed, with Deon Long finding an opening behind the zones of the Husky linebackers, who had bit on the play-action. Next, Brown scooted for 14 yards on a well-executed read-option that took advantage of an overcommitted Pruitt.

Then came the interception. As we discussed in our preview, Brown has a bad tendency to fall away when he’s throwing against inside pressure, and here this mechanics failure cost him. On a screen pass, Brown let the ball go while turning to his left, which sailed the ball to Ross who got a few fingers on the ball. Then, as it fluttered to the ground, Mack scooped the pigskin for a turnover. The pick itself was an extraordinary show of athleticism, but also could’ve been entirely avoided.

FOURTH DRIVE 5 plays, 45 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS

Diggs made his presence felt immediately on this series with a 36-yard pitch-and-catch on a deep in-route he ran behind short linebacker zones. Pruitt made an athletic play to stop a subsequent read-option for no gain. Then, Maryland quickly got to the outside on a power run that Ty-Meer Brown failed to stop, but Stephen was able to chase down from behind. C.J. Brown nearly up recorded a first down on a busted third and short snap, when he broke a backside Willman contain and veered to the opposite sideline.

However, he came up just shy of the sticks – which was the same story told on the Terrapins’ following fourth down play; an unsuccessful quarterback sneak.

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Stephen made a tremendous play to shoot the A gap and hit Brown low before the UConn linebackers pushed him back over the top.

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FIFTH DRIVE 4 plays, 80 yards, TOUCHDOWN

The Terps responded to their second turnover with a cleverly run play-action pass, which sold that they were about to run their most commonly called run play of 2013. This fake afforded Brown plenty of time to throw and find Diggs, who once again found space behind the Husky linebcakers. Then, Maryland did call their favorite run, and followed it up with one of there most preferred passing concepts – a levels route design – to move the chains.

With a new set of downs, Brown scored the first Terrapin touchdown on an outside zone-read thanks to some poor technique by Graham Stewart. Below, you can see the Maryland quarterback keeping the ball for himself as he correctly reads that Ross would be dead to rights on a hand-off. You should also spot Stewart in prime position to make a play on the quarterback (yellow dotted line). The red arrow is a poor angle, which would give Brown room to run.

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As you can see, the UConn linebacker takes the poor angle and cutting further upfield than he should. The dangerous Terrapin signal caller has space to race to the house.

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And he’s gone.

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SIXTH DRIVE 4 plays, 29 yards, FIELD GOAL

The Huskies returned to their 4-3 front and allowed a 25-yard on an inverted veer that put Brown on the corner quickly, and blocked Stewart out easily. UConn immediately returned to its 3-4 set, and after a dropped pass in the flat, Smallwood raced crossfield for another first down-saving stop on a Ross run. Third down brought some of the best pressure on the night, forcing an errant Brown throw in the direction of the tight end Stinebaugh.

SEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, PUNT

Beginning at their own nine yardline in a 10-10 game, Maryland was stuffed on a Ross counter run by Smallwood and Campenni, who were working again from a 3-4. An incompletion followed on second down, something that a poor throw against good coverage will produce every time. UConn sent outs its dime package (six defensive backs out) for the first time all night on third and 10, rushed three and nearly allowed a long, gorgeous throw to Diggs over the middle. He dropped it.

Also of note, this was the first drive second-string linebacker Jefferson Ashiru came onto the field for Stewart, who suffered a high ankle sprain.

EIGHTH DRIVE 9 plays, 86 yards, FIELD GOAL

Backed up once again, the Terrapins feasted on Husky mistakes en route to taking a first half lead. Donohue failed to make his correct run rill on the opening play, which allowed Ross to burst through a four-man line easily for 21 yards. Maryland had spread Huskies wide with four receivers and UConn remained in its base defense. The ensuring three snaps witnessed a strong Joseph run stop, a 15-yard illegal block penalty on the Terps and a 12-yard Brown pass caught on yet another Dig route.

Facing third and eight, the Huskies switched to a trap coverage known as Cover 1 Robber. However, Brown smartly kept away from the middle of the field and found Long on the outside, who’d cleanly separated from redshirt freshman corner Jhavon Williams for 16 yards. More man-to-man coverage gave way to better results, when Mack stepped up with an exceptional swat to deny Diggs a long reception. Another pass hit the turf on second down, before the Huskies biggest pass coverage gaffe of the night.

I’ve taken a look at the play over ten times, and believe UConn executed a Cover 2 shell with five short zones and two deep. In any case, corner Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown (top green circle) should be responsible for throws to the far side of the field, which is where the ball eventually went.

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Below, you’ll find the two receivers farthest to the right have stopped their upfield progress to run in-breaking routes, which cleared space for the out-breaking Lavern Jacobs in the slot. Brown’s depth is questionable here as a deep safety responsible for half the field, but it’s hard to entirely fault him for honing in Diggs (positioned middle).

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Here we can see how all the attention of all the UConn defensive backs has been grabbed by the inside routes (which again, were a common, successful theme for Maryland at this point). This leaves Jacobs wide open, both Jones and Brown in poor position to make a play on him and an easy decision for Brown to make with the ball.

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After a lackluster shove from a chasing Jones, Jacobs barely caught some white sideline paint inside the five yard with his right foot. This set the table for one more play with eight seconds on the clock. Maryland attempted to free Diggs with pre-snap motion and then a crossing route, but good zone coverage and pressure from Pruitt forced a toss out-of-bounds.

NINTH DRIVE 7 plays, 41 yards, FUMBLE

Two outside runs moved the chains against a 4-3 front to jumpstart the second half. Next, an easy first down pass is made to Stinebaugh off play-action. The Terp tight end found lots of space against a UConn Cover 2 shell with linebackers sucked in on the fake. After an inside Ross traveled nine yards, Brown faked a hand-off and went deep to Diggs, who watched the ball get deflected away by safety Obi Melifonwu. Stephen delivered a great hit as Brown let go of the ball, which was perfectly placed.

Maryland converted their now third and short, before back-up running back Albert Reid fumbled an option pitch that was later recovered by Ashiru.

TENTH DRIVE 1 plays, 10 yards, FUMBLE

Mack put his helmet to the ball and forced a Ross fumble after the Terp running back scampered ten yards on an outside run. Ty-Meer Brown recovered, and the Husky offense converted the turnover into three points.

ELEVENTH DRIVE 4 plays, 80 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Maryland spread the UConn base defense with a four-receiver set on their opening play and ran a zone-read that the Huskies had stopped dead with a scrape-exchange technique, before Brown juked Smallwood and raced 27 yards. Then, a play-action design moved Brown right where he had all day to throw to Malcom Culmer for 26 yards. The Terps picked up no gain on the following snap, before they moved 15 yards downfield due to a bogus pass interference penalty on safety Ty-Meer Brown.

The fourth official play of the series resulted in a score thanks to excellent quarterback play on a zone-read fake. In the first picture, you’ll see Brown keeping the ball and moving towards the wide receiver screen Maryland wants to run on the wide side of the field.

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Instead of immediately whipping the ball to Diggs, Brown ingeniously keeps running to threaten the defense that he’ll run the ball. This draws the nearest Huskies away from Diggs, whom he fires a pass to at the last second. Excluding the corner soon about to be blocked at the bottom of the picture, Diggs then has a one-on-one with a safety that’s 15 yards away.

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He scored standing up, and Maryland took a 20-10 lead.

TWELFTH DRIVE 4 plays, 5 yards, MISSED FG

After a first down run for no gain, Long dropped a gorgeous touchdown pass with Jones trailing a half-step in coverage. It could’ve been the best throw of the game. On third down, Brown broke from a Reuben Frank sack to rush for five yards and welcome on the punt team.

THIRTEENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 9 yards, PUNT

The Terps mustered just three yards on the opening two downs of the drive against an active UConn defensive line positioned in 4-3 alignment. Blanket coverage downfield forced Brown to find Ross in the flat on the final play, which was brought to a halt with a nice tackle from Williams.

FOURTEENTH DRIVE 4 plays, 22 yards, PUNT

Ross sliced the Huskies up the middle for 13 prior to a pair of one-yard Reid runs. Third down witnessed a seven-yard pass to Stinebaugh, who bobbled the ball initially and fell three feet short of the sticks on a stop by back-up safety Wilbert Lee.

FIFTEENTH DRIVE 8 plays, 23 yards, FIELD GOAL

Maryland milked the clock for four minutes on the series that followed the Whitmer safety. Brown raced 12 yards on an inverted veer and Ross followed with three consecutive runs for a first down. Ashiru dropped the Maryland runner on the next snap, when he shed a moving block from a Terp tight end and charged into the backfield. Next, Melifonwu nearly reeled in his second interception of the season on a questionable deep throw by Brown. The Huskies got off the field thanks against a well-executed screen pass that was run down from behind by Stephen.

SIXTEENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 8 yards, PUNT

Filed under the heading of "too little, too late", UConn forced a three-and-out on this drive that began with back-to-back zone reads. Then, the Huskies deployed their only eight-man box on the night to stop a Brown run for three yards.

Bottom line: When Pasqualoni stated that if UConn hadn’t made basic assignment or technique mistakes on four play, the outcome of this game would’ve swung the other way, he forgot one thing. The same can be said for Maryland to bring it right back. A simple option pitch is completed, a screen pass is put on the numbers, a touchdown pass is caught, and the Terrapins could’ve put up a lot more points. But hey, that’s football.

This unit wasn’t as dominated as the stats suggest, nor close to shutout performance as the coach proposed. The pass rush is still a considerable concern after two games, and it won’t get any easier to fix. The Huskies will face a much tougher offensive line against Michigan Saturday night, including All-American tackle Taylor Lewan. I don’t believe can UConn can use the same bend-don’t-break gameplan with no pressures against the Wolverines, but you should expect something similar.

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

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