We’ll get right into the Xs and Os here as frankly, there’s a lot to get to.
But in case you missed it, go check out yesterday’s breakdown of the UConn offense and their struggles against Towson.
Today, we’re following a similar format from a day ago, when we divulged basic impressions of the unit’s performance and then gave a comprehensive look at every drive.
Here we go.
The biggest issues the Huskies faced last Thursday were of both the fundamental and fortune variety. Over the first half, UConn’s outside run contain was very poor, particularly against one of the oldest and most effective runs in football: the Power-O. Towson beat the Huskies over the head with variations of this play (a shocking one-fifth of Tiger plays were power runs) all night from different formations. Every team has this run in its playbook, and UConn largely fixed its contain problems at halftime.
Yet after intermission, the Huskies’ continued to allow scoring drives, thanks in large part to miraculous, big passing gains. Secondary starters Taylor Mack and safety Byron Jones each at one time failed to make individual plays on the ball despite tight coverage, as Mack tripped and Jones didn’t turn around. Neither of these improbable events was likely to happen in the first place and they’re certainly not expected to happen again. But, the pass defense could still be in big trouble down the road for a different reason.
Now, back to the running game. Entering the opener, everyone knew Towson loved to run so much so that they’d hand the ball off on fourth and a mile if they could. 213 yards on the ground later, it looked like the Tigers had succeeded the other night. But, this wasn’t truly the case. Thursday was instead a tale of two halves.
Before intermission, Towson produced a 5.9 yards/carry average on 20 rushes, eight of which went for four yards or more. The Tigers consistently turned the corner against UConn, which resulted not only in a score, but manufactured runs of 11, 16, 22 and 24 yards. Then, the second half saw a measly 2.8 yards/carry average on 27 designed hand-offs, only seven of which went for four yards or more.
The reason for this was the Huskies’ change to a 3-4 front on most running downs. UConn kept its base 4-3 personnel out there, but changed their gap alignment and had either Tim Willlman or Jesse Joseph stand up as a de facto outside linebacker. I believe the Huskies’ run defense will perform at a higher level in the future, as has been the case almost always under coordinator Hank Hughes. Yet, a lot of coaching is needed before the Maryland game because as you saw, if defenses can’t stop the power run, they won’t be stopping much.
The final issue, touched upon above, may not be as fixable on the practice field. UConn generated little pass rush all night (and zero sacks) without its best sack artists from 2012, Trevarado Williams and Sio Moore, who accounted for more than 59 percent of the team’s quarterback takedowns last year. Part of this was due to the assorted quick throws designed by Tigers coach Rob Ambrose to keep Athens away from a rush. In addition, Towson boasts a pair of excellent offensive tackles to stem pressure, but it’s hard to imagine many of the Huskies future opponents will boast worse.
Thus, UConn may have to generate pressure schematically for the remainder of the season. This poses a big problem because not only have the Huskies lost their top pass rushers from 2012, but also their best cover men in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz. You can’t blitz frequently without the protection of good, consistent coverage in the back end.
Last Thursday night, the Huskies were very conservative in their play-calling, opting to stick predominantly in Cover 1. The coaches likely very logically expected to be able to play the Tigers straight up and win, but this wasn’t the case (especially up front), and it was too late before they started to get creative with pressure. Athens, for a handful of reasons, had time to throw and made the Huskies pay. Not even UConn’s pass-rushing front four in its sub-packages, comrpsied of Graham Stewart, Shamar Stephen, Angelo Pruitt and Reuben Frank, could create much of a push on its own.
FIRST DRIVE 8 plays, 38 yards, INT
Run-heavy Towson surprised by calling six passes and only three runs (including a second down "no play" caused by an Angelo Pruitt offsides penalty) on their opening series. The Tigers didn’t air out though, instead opting for quick passes on naked bootlegs, slants and the popular smash route concept. When running, they sent Terrance West behind a couple power plays, which later set up play-action passes that cleverly showed a pulling guard.
Athens frequently targeted his no. 1 wideout Spencer Wilkins, who was positioned in the slot to produce a favorable matchup. At the end of the drive, Wilkins bested Mack on a nine-yard slant, caught a 12-yard ball on first and 15 and then, was the intended target for Melifonwu’s eventual interception.
On the turnover, the Huskies were in quarters coverage and had many eyes caught in the backfield during a run fake. Byron Jones certainly got away with a defensive pass interference penalty when he made contact with Wilkins because he was in no position to play the ball. Credit Julian Campenni with good pressure, after he’d suffered a rough drive as the frequent object of blocking double teams.
SECOND DRIVE 4 plays, 66 yards, TOUCHDOWN
This is where UConn’s run contain first fell apart. West gained the corner on a stretch run to the right side of the field where Melifonwu wasn’t wide enough to hem him back inside. Next, Willman and outside linebacker Ryan Donohue both pinched too far in on back-to-back power runs that allowed the Tigers to gain 27 yards. Towson scored on the ensuing play with a 22-yard catch and run by Sterling Phifer. who was left wide open due to a missed assignment by either Yawin Smallwood or Graham Stewart.
The Huskies were in a variation of Cover 1 that features a linebacker roaming underneath, and based on the previous plays where they made the same call, it’s likely Stewart who faltered.
THIRD DRIVE 5 plays, 15 yards, PUNT
Melifonwu made a score-saving touchdown on the second play of this series, then teamed with Mack to keep good contain on a first down, outside run. The Tigers continued to call power-O, but presented new formations before the snap to convey that different plays were coming. Back-up defensive tackle Mikal Myers showed up on a run stop, before the Huskies had success with a five-man rush on third down to force a punt.
FOURTH DRIVE 7 plays, 21 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS
The Husky run defense stiffened for the first two snaps, before allowing a daring run call on third and five to move the chains. UConn was in dime personnel (six defensive backs), a package coaches started to get away from later in the game. Then, the unit returned to its stout form by denying Towson the necessary ten yards on three straight runs. The Tigers went for it on fourth down, executing a weakside power play that included an extra offensive lineman on the opposite side. The Huskies stopped West short, despite not being complete set at the snap.
FIFTH DRIVE 2 plays, 29 yards, TOUCHDOWN
Disadvantaged by the Chandler Whitmer interception, the defense took the field inside their own 30 yardline, and then left the gridiron not a minute later. UConn struggled to get settled pre-snap once again, before Jones took a bad angle trying to cut down a power run to the right, which took Towson to the five. From there, Phifer finished the Huskies with a touchdown scamper than went behind an extra tackle on a power run left.
SIXTH DRIVE 3 plays, 2 yards, PUNT
The Tigers ran what seemed to be the antithesis of a two-minute drill with 1:40 to go in the first half, executing a four-yard run and short pass completion on another smash concept. Wilkins committed a false start penalty, and then the clock continued to wind until UConn called timeout.
SEVENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 5 yards, PUNT
The most common Towson offensive result of the night popped up again to open the second half: a three-yard run. Campenni was blocked out easily, but his teammates came to swarm and make the stop. Taylor Mack swatted a pass on the next play where the Huskies were again in Cover 1. After staring him down, Athens completed a short past to West , who Melifonwu tackled short of the marker. The freshman safety continued to play well in space, which is surprising for his 6’ 3" stature and entire lack of experience.
EIGHTH DRIVE 13 plays, 95 yards, TOUCHDOWN
This was the back-breaker. UConn began its switch to a traditional 3-4 front on this series and enjoyed new success against the run. Then, the linebackers were sucked in hard on a third and two play-action pass that very well could’ve been the game’s turning point.
Athens rolled away on a Power-O fake, stood in the face of pressure and delivered the ball to Wilkins, just inches away from an oncoming Mack. It was a tough break for the Huskies, whose solid run contain was negated by allowed plays in the passing game. Byron Jones gave up too much cushion on second and long, permitting a nine-yard completion to Derrick Joseph. Later, Mack stumbled on second and 14 to open the door for Leon Kinnard to haul in a 38-yard bomb on Towson’s favorite pass design, "All Go".
As the Tigers began to slow near end zone, Yawin Smallwood committed pass interference on the subsequent third down to breathe life back into their attack. The team captain then made a score-saving hit on the next play, a flip pass to West. Two snaps afterward, Athens snuck past the goalline to make it a two-score ballgame.
NINTH DRIVE 3 plays, 8 yards, PUNT
Towson was stuffed on a zone read play to open the series, but still managed to generate a short and favorable third down following a quick completion. This time UConn responded with a wide defensive line alignment that they filled in nicely with their back seven to stuff West on a straight lead play.
TENTH DRIVE 3 plays, 0 yards, PUNT
Ten Huskies bit hard on a run fake that preceded a deep pass intended for Wilkins. Melifonwu was the only Husky within a mile, and he made yet another play to prevent a score. Standing as an outside linebacker, Willman read and shut down yet another power run play. To end the series, UConn executed a nice zone blitz, which created their best pressure on the night and forced a throwaway.
ELEVENTH DRIVE 10 plays, 68 yards, TOUCHDOWN
The Huskies continued to pressure on the first third down of this drive, but soft coverage against a stacked release allowed Towson a five-yard completion. The Tigers went backwards on the following snaps, while UConn again employed a 3-4 front. On third and 14, misfortune struck the UConn secondary once more when Towson ran "All-Go" again and Byron Jones couldn’t make a play on the ball. 46-yard gain.
At the Huskies’ fifteen yardline, the Tigers called four straight runs that culminated in a West touchdown on a power play. Pruitt was pushed around on first down, though to be fair, he’s not suited to take on double teams as a 3-4 defensive end. Stephen appeared to run low on gas as he started to get blocked successfully one-on-one for some of the first times all game.
TWELFTH DRIVE 3 plays, 7 yards, PUNT
Now down just 26-18 and with a slightly stronger pulse, UConn took the field and denied Towson on three consecutive runs. The Husky linebackers showed up here as they compensated for the tired linemen in front of them and made every tackle on the drive. The Tigers ran a zone read to begin and end the series, but couldn’t advance.
THIRTEENTH DRIVE 6 plays, 30 yards, TOUCHDOWN
Following Brian Lemelle’s critical fumble on the punt return, Towson put the ball in the air just once en route to their final score. The biggest play came on a toss to the right, a run play design that was a favorite of theirs in 2012. West turned the corner easily with thanks to a seal made by right tackle Randall Harris. From inside the ten, the Tigers pounded the ball forward, until their fourth down touchdown was scored on, you guessed it—a power run.
Bottom line: It’s time to move on. This unit will be better against the run, and shouldn’t continue fall victim to unlucky plays in the secondary. Yet, the lack of pass rush is very, very concerning. In my opinion, they should have done more to pressure Athens and take away Wilkins, Towson’s only returning top-six receiver. Whether or not UConn can contain Maryland’s top returning weapon from 2012, Stefon Diggs, is likely to decide their next ballgame.
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