For those of you looking for broad proclamations about the state and future of this offense, I'm sorry.
Right now, I don't have any. What I have instead is the most comprehensive film breakdown we've ever done here on The UConn Blog.
Now with that breakdown in hand, why don't I have anything definitive to say about this group? Well to begin, I will stick by my assessment last week that this will eventually be the best offense of the Paul Pasqualoni era.
But frankly after just three games, there’s not much you can say about a struggling unit that displays improvement one week and sustains key injuries the next. The offense initially didn't look good, then it started to look better and recently, the Huskies have been hurting. There’s simply not enough of an untainted sample to say much more. In fact, to completely judge and forecast an offense based off a game against a tough opponent early in the season, when it can’t find rhythm yet even in its starting lineup, would be foolish.
Unlike the healthier defense and the showing it gave against Michigan, the best barometer for the UConn attack will be this weekend against Buffalo. Right now, two key players are out, and their presence would have cured the Huskies' biggest woes against the Wolverines:
5 dropped passes, 4 sacks allowed via pressure from the right side and poor run blocking.
It is unknown whether wide receiver Shakim Phillips and right tackle Kevin Friend will be able to play against the Bulls. But, it is a fact that whenever they do come back, this unit be much better because of them as its issues have been execution based.
The gameplan last Saturday night was very good. The first eleven plays, (and most of them on afterward) were all designed to aid the porous right side of the offensive line, spread out the Wolverines, get the ball out Chandler Whitmer’s hands quickly and give Lyle McCombs and Max Delorenzo room to run.
The players, for the most part, had a difficult time executing all together; one missed block here, a drop there and a poor decision sprinkled somewhere in between. I’ll say it again—this team doesn’t have an area that can’t get considerably better. Now, the two places that have the most room to improve are a position that’s hurting—pass catchers—and a group that we’ve been talking about all year—the right side of the offensive line.
Therefore, from a general perspective, there’s not too much new to report here.
However, this was still half of the team that nearly knocked off Michigan in the biggest home game in UConn football history.
So, let’s see what they did do right and what specifically went wrong in one of the most exciting games in recent memory.
Keep it up:
Diversity of the play-calling
Steve Greene everything
Hard running from the backs
Offensive line’s right side
Tight ends pass and run blocking
With Phillips out, it appeared the pass catching onus was going to fall on freshman wideouts John Green, Dhameer Bradley and others. However, instead of filling Phillips’ wide shoes with another receiver, the coaching staff opted to mix and match with some bigger bodies.
Excluding their first few series that featured a spread, passing attack, UConn called upon more two-tight end packages than we’ve seen from them all season. There was a constant rotation of Sean McQuillan, Spencer Parker and the newly converted Elijah Norris, though Parker saw most of the snaps down the stretch in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Sensibly, Norris saw the fewest snaps of the trio in his first collegiate game playing offense.
The right tackle spot on the Husky offensive line has previously been described in this space as a "revolving door". Last weekend, the entire right side was spinning in revolutions. In place of injured tackle Friend, UConn interchanged Dalton Gifford and Xavier Hemingway throughout the game, and at guard, normal starter Gus Cruz was splt time with center Tyler Bullock. All four combinations of the four offensive linemen took the field at some point Saturday.
There was nothing too remarkable in this department. The Huskies ran plays from under center, in the shotgun, out of I-formation, with three receivers to a side and many one-back sets.
The Wolverines went after UConn with pressure much in the same way that Towson and Maryland did. While they didn’t blitz as frequently as the Terrapins, they brought pressure on nearly every third down, and did a very good job of disguising their intentions pre-snap.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison dialed up a few run blitzes that controlled the Huskies’ ground attack on second down, as he brought secondary pressure a lot on first and third. Michigan didn’t challenge the Husky receivers with press-man coverage as I thought they would, but the Wolverines did mix in some man-to-man defenses at key moments.
Michigan also successfully attacked with five various stunts (or switches by defensive linemen) across from the right guard and tackle spots—the weakest point on the team. They were all rather basic maneuvers, however the right side of the line failed to pick them up and prevent damage to both the passing and running game. Below is a tackle-end or "TED" stunt that Michigan used to stop a Lyle McCombs run in the first quarter, and in the second half, pressure a Whitmer throw.
FIRST DRIVE 5 plays, 25 yards, 1:38
The most anticipated game in recent Husky history opened with the most ordinary play we’ve all seen 100 times over—a two-yard McCombs run to the right. After the snap, a blitzing linebacker pushed Gifford back, which in turn left little room for no. 43 to maneuver. The Huskies then went to a play-action pass from a heavier personnel package, and Whitmer put the ball right on the money for McQuillan to make a 19-yard gain against Cover 2. Afterward, a short Davis completion picked up four, and the drive concluded with a Foxx drop and Whitmer pass batted at the line. Michigan blitzed on three of the game’s first five plays.
SECOND DRIVE 3 plays, 6 yards, 1:22
A Hemingway for Gifford swap, a continuation of quick throws and more help sent to the right tackle spot were all seen on this three-and-out. Foxx reeled in a six-yard pass before a tackle-end stunt halted a McCombs run and another blitz at the offense’s right forced a Whitmer incompletion.
THIRD DRIVE 3 plays, 6 yards, 0:47
The Huskies utilized their third different right guard-right tackle combination in as many series with Bullock and Gifford lined up together. Bullock made his presence felt immediately when he teamed with Jimmy Bennett to spring a seven-yard Max Delorenzo run on first down. Next, Foxx dropped an easy throw on a bubble screen and then another Whitmer pass on third down against tight coverage. Each throw would’ve moved the chains. Michigan blitzed again on third down.
FOURTH DRIVE 3 plays, -1 yard, 1:25
A first down stunt (this time of the end-tackle variety) blew up an opening play-action pass and forced an incompletion. McCombs pushed ahead for only three yards on second down, as Cruz couldn’t place a finger on a Wolverine and linebacker Desmond Morgan ditched Bennett to make the tackle. To end the series, Frank Clark picked up his first sack of the night against Xavier Hemingway from a four-man rush that was backed by two-man coverage. Whitmer perhaps had a split second to throw as he stepped up in the pocket, but that arguably could’ve also opened him up to a strip sack from behind.
FIFTH DRIVE 3 play, 3 yards, 1:57
Whitmer lost three yards on an inverted veer to set the table for a second down McCombs scamper of eight yards. Greene and Mateas did an excellent job to clear space for the junior runner. Facing a third down and five, UConn motioned McCombs pre-snap from the slot to the backfield, and then threw a swing pass in his direction. He slipped upon making the catch, which lost two yards. But, he never had a chance anyways against incoming tackler Blake Countess. After enduring constant third down pressure, Whitmer rushed to make this throw to McCombs, and failed to take advantage of ample time he had.
SIXTH DRIVE 8 plays, 56 yards, 3:21
Finally, the unit got going. Following a read-option keeper that gained only a few feet thanks to another end-tackle stunt, Whitmer rifled a throw to Davis for 16 yards. Michigan opted to rush just four on the pass, didn’t garner much pressure and thus paid a price
Then came the long, near-touchdown toss to Davis. UConn executed a wonderful play-action fake, which gave Whitmer plenty of time to stand in and make the money throw he eventually did to no. 85. Contrary to my original stance on the play, I now agree with the referees that Davis did not maintain sufficient control upon hitting the ground and believe they made the right call. The ABC cameras did a great job here.
On the subsequent second down, Whitmer came right back to find Davis on a skinny post against a zone blitz and produce another fresh set of downs. The entire left side of the offensive line then paved the way for Delorenzo to move the chains again with a piece of cake 12-yard run. The big back could only pick up three feet on the next hike due to poor blocks from Norris and Cruz. As a consequence of Mateas also losing his helmet on the play, Bullock was moved to center for second down, which nearly proved disastrous when he and Whitmer fumbled their snap exchange. The Husky signal caller recovered the loose ball back at the Michigan 11 yardline.
Here the Huskies used a variation of the "Pin" route concept to convert their only third down of the game and get on the board with Parker’s touchdown catch. The Wolverines played Cover 4 or a quarters defense, and "Pin" is a classic quarters beater. This was likely no coincidence, but instead one of the many byproducts of UConn coaches’ late night opponent film study.
As you’ll see below, the senior tight end was aligned tight to the right side of the formation with Foxx off to his right. At the snap of the ball, Parker sprints towards the end zone, while Foxx slants at the middle of the field. Generally, this route combination is supposed to draw a safety down and open up space above him, but here, it creates conflict for the middle linebacker Bolden. Bolden is responsible for the center of the field and required to run with any inside vertical routes.
Upon the snap of the ball, he sinks to cover Parker with inside leverage. Simultaneously, Foxx cuts across and uses his teammates straight release as a sort of pick or shield from his own defender. This catches Bolden’s eye.
So, he jumps down to cover Foxx, which is of course a big mistake. For not only does this choice violate his assignment (run and cover the vertical route), but it choice also passes up a real danger to cover a lesser threat. Now Parker has separated from his only nearby defender, and gained leverage against the Wolverines' last hope (the safety behind him), who sees Whitmer making the correct read and firing to his open tight end.
SEVENTH DRIVE 6 plays, 26 yards, 1:19
After Byron Jones’ interception, UConn picked up a pair of first downs on three plays headlined by a Foxx jet sweep and McCombs outside run. The Huskies generated their longest run of the game on a run design they hadn't yet shown this season, which pulled both Mateas and Cruz out in front of McCombs. Then, Whitmer’s ugly side showed up for three straight plays to snuff out the drive. He prematurely left the pocket on first down, threw late into coverage on the subsequent snap and barely overthrew Davis on the final play. Michigan sent a safety at the quarterback via a nifty zone blitz, though the chance for a completion was there.
Here’s a snapshot of the pocket he took off from on first down, instead of stepping up into the empty space:
EIGHTH DRIVE 2 plays, 9 yards, 0:38
Benefactors of a Wolverine special teams gaffe, the Huskies faced just nine yards between them and a second score. Good penetration by the Michigan defensive line stopped a Max Delorenzo run on first down, but, it couldn’t halt the combination of great play design and execution on second.
Operating out a two-tight end set, UConn motioned McQuillan across the formation from right to left to determine whether the Wolverines were in man or zone coverage. As you can see, the Husky tight end was followed by a defensive back, which tipped that Michigan was in some form of man-to-man coverage.
In fact, the Wolverines were actually playing a bit of both in a version of Cover 1 that also deploys two zones, one short and one deep. Below, you can see all the Michigan defensive assignments for this play.
Upon the snap of the ball, McQuillan cut back across the middle of the field, while the second tight end ran straight upfield. Each of these routes drew attention away from McCombs, who released out of the backfield already with a step on the defensive end covering him.
With no Wolverine available to help on McCombs (no. 30 Thomas Gordon is busy trying to catch the now open McQuillan) Whitmer quickly realizes the one-on-one matchup his running back possesses, and lofts the ball in his direction. McCombs continues to gain ground on his slower defender and has clear vision of the perfectly arched pass.
Welcome to paydirt.
NINTH DRIVE 1 plays, -2 yards, 0:29
Pasqualoni was very late to use his first timeout towards the end of Michigan’s final first half drive that preceded this "series". The UConn coach let 15 seconds run off and then a muffed punt return by Brian Lemelle at his own eight-yardline forced the Huskies to wisely kneel out the clock.
TENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 1 yard, 0:52
The first Husky offensive play of the second half went exactly as you’d draw it up—except the catch at the end. Parker dropped a sure first down on a perfectly delivered play-action rollout pass before a Michigan run-blitz stymied a second down Delorenzo carry. Then, Whtimer failed to connect with Green on a comeback route that was likely run a yard or two too far. The Wolverines came with heavy pressure on third down, once again from the secondary.
ELEVENTH DRIVE 8 plays, 36 yards, 4:23
Whitmer spun some of his best throws on the night during this drive, which eventually ended in Chad Christen’s first missed field goal dating back to last October. A strong slant completion to Foxx (on a packaged play), a throw to Parker on the run and a pass to Davis along the sideline against tight coverage quickly set UConn up at the Michigan 25 yardline. However, Whitmer then held the ball too long and missed an open man against a zone blitz that caused a six-yard sack. A read-option hand-off gained back four of those yards, but another third down McCombs swing pass went for naught when he slipped on the rough Rentschler Field turf for a loss of two.Then, Christen missed the kick,
TWELFTH DRIVE 3 plays, 5 yards, 1:28
This series brought you the play that was most commonly dubbed as last Saturday’s "turning point" for the Wolverines. After yet another UConn defensive stop, the Husky offense moved the chains with a play-action completion to McQuillan and a poorly blocked, but still two-yard, Delorenzo run. Bennett committed a false start penalty to push the Huskies back right before Michigan's Desmond Morgan made the play of the game.
In an attempt to keep everything in front of them on first and long, the Wolverines went to a "Tampa Two" coverage, shown below. While the Huskies deployed four receivers, two to either side, Whitmer focused on his two best options, Davis and Foxx, who were both aligned to the left. Their routes are also drawn in below:
As mentioned, Whitmer gave all his attention to the left side of the field. As a part of zone coverage technique, the Wolverines, including Morgan, watched the quarterback’s eyes and travelled to the spot where he had honed in on. Here, Whitmer was waiting for Davis to open up on his post, and while he showed good anticipation with the breaking of the route, he failed to recognize the dangers of throwing in that area.
Of course, the bottom line here is that Morgan makes an incredibly athletic, one-handed snag of the ball. But, if you asked the junior signal caller and his coaches if they would like to have that one back, the answer almost assuredly is yes. Morgan brought the ball back just outside the UConn ten yardline, and Fitz Touissant took it in from there on the next play.
THIRTEENTH DRIVE 3 play, -8 yards, 1:36
After a one-yard McCombs run, Parker allowed a second down sack to Mario Ojemudia to drive the Huskies to a near-impossible third and 19. Michigan reverted to just a three-man rush when it deployed eight men into coverage, yet the Wolverines still produced adequate pressure and forced a throwaway.
FOURTEENTH DRIVE 7 play, 34 yards, 2:56
The final meaningful drive of the night opened in a fashion that appeared to be the complete opposite of the way it ended. Whitmer whipped a play-action pass into Foxx for 14 yards and then watched him sprint for six more on the following play. Martin Hyppolite reset the sticks with a strong Power-O run founded in strong blocking from Greene, Hemingway and Cruz.
Next, things soured considerably. With pass protection help given to Hemingway outside at tackle, Cruz allowed inside pressure from the right that flushed Whitmer from the pocket and into a first down throwaway. On the next play, Countess hammered Foxx on a bubble screen and drove the Huskies back two yards. The backward movement then continued with a McQuillan false start and Hemingway allowed sack.
It was Hemingway’s second allowed sack on the night, and fourth given up by the team.
Finally, the upset bid ended just nine feet short on a play call that was actually suited to beat the Wolverines two-man coverage.
UConn had hoped that the outside go-route from Davis would be enough to draw safety Jarrod Wilson away from Foxx over the middle, but Wilson made a great, rangy play to halt the Husky slot receiver and put away the ballgame.
(pardon the shoddy quality of the last screenshot)
Bottom line: It was a rough go this week against the Wolverines, as should've been expected. Teams will continue to attack the right side of the offensive line until there is stability, which likely will coincide with Friend’s health. Phillips’ production this year is encouraging, as is Whitmer’s progression with his pocket presence since the Towson game. The Huskies have to get some continuity going soon before the conference schedule hits, and they know it. Buffalo is a big game for this offense.
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