(Author's note: Following every UConn football game this season, a Tale of the Tape breakdown such as this will be published to digest the performance of either the Husky offense or defense from the previous weekend. The contents of these pieces are born from charts and notes taken on every game snap, in addition to observed trends over the course of the game. Enjoy.)
Eleven months ago, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel took questions from local media before introducing T.J. Weist as the Huskies' interim head coach and only hope to rebound from an 0-4 record. One inquiry cut straight to a more important matter.
"Is there enough talent on this team to turn the program around?"
Manuel said yes.
Moments later in his opening statement, Weist concurred.
To be fair, the coach's answer was never, ever going to be no.
It couldn't be. Weist's job was simply to win. Making perceived excuses about the state of his new team was not going to help him triumph over a single thing.
Today, the UConn job is no longer Weist's, and it is no longer attached to the interim tag. As a result, last year's perceived excuses of a sapped cupboard can now become an accepted, inescapable reality under first-year headman Bob Diaco.
Last Friday, Diaco and his staff scheduled snaps for UConn players in the opener against BYU like it was a spring game. Twenty-five different Huskies took the field on defense and 25 more did so on offense, including 13 skill-position players who saw double-digit snaps.
Why? To improve the team as a whole. That was Friday's objective, first and foremost.
Yes, UConn stormed out of the tunnel that night trying to win. But it would be fallacious to say that scoring more points was the Huskies' primary goal.
Forget the coaches' constant substituting (which deployed an entire second-string offense in the second half). Just take a look at this personnel grouping and formation called by offensive coordinator Mike Cummings, as UConn trailed 28-10 with less than eight minutes to go at the BYU 37-yardline.
No run-pass balanced attack would ever line up in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends) and run the ball in a sincere effort to come back from such a hefty deficit. And this wasn't a single, out-of-context snapshot from Friday's offense.
It was the No. 1 play on a Top Ten of telling signs that UConn football in 2014 is in a state of brutally honest rebuild. Other highlights included letting 54 seconds run off without trying to score at the end of the first half and 37 ticks go by as a close to the third quarter, despite the fact the Huskies were down multiple scores.
Now this piece isn't to criticize the UConn coaches in their grand première. It's to provide a deeper understanding of what transpired on the field and why, as every Tale of the Tape has done and will continue to do. With that, there are two more key elements from the season-opening loss to understand before diving into the key moments of each quarter: UConn's unsettled situations at quarterback and offensive line.
Casey Cochran and Chandler Whitmer were not spared from the liberal approach their coaches took to substituting Friday. As you've likely heard, the two are going to split time under center for the foreseeable future and were a couple snaps away from 50/50 against BYU. Their performances against the Cougar defense were of similar average quality, except in one critical area: throwing under pressure.
Cochran repeatedly delivered with BYU rushers bearing down on him, while Whitmer struggled to operate in almost every muddled pocket he faced.
Below is a look at a fourth-quarter Cochran throw that soared over an incoming defender, cross-field towards an open Noel Thomas and perfectly into the waiting arms of the young wideout.
Next is an earlier hit Cochran took from two Cougar linemen less than one second after he fired a completed pass to tight end Sean McQuillan in the flat.
When BYU managed to garner even slight pressure against Whitmer, it didn't take much to force him out of the pocket. Look how far the redshirt senior scampers back from the line of the scrimmage after UConn had worked into the red zone during a critical drive.
That's a full 10 yards.
As the second half progressed, the Cougars dialed up an increasing number of blitzes against Whitmer, often sending pressure up the middle via a crossfire X blitz. Even when BYU faked the inside scheme and rushed four, the potential of pressure still sped up his progressions and footwork. Within the pocket, Whitmer also endured occasional trouble keeping his eyes downfield, though sometimes he just had no chance against free rushers surrendered by UConn's first-year starting tackles.
This fourth-quarter dropback, however, was not one of them.
Over his entire night, Cochran did miss high on a handful of throws, including two critical passes that ended in an interception and denied Geremy Davis an easy big gain. Whitmer, on the other hand, dropped the finest dime of the night to Davis good for 37 yards with minutes to go.
But therein lies the issue here.
Whitmer's best pass came during the final moments of a 25-point contest when UConn made it clear it wasn't going to attempt a comeback.
Considering that any Husky under center in 2014 will face regular pressure working behind a rough UConn offensive line (and yes, it is very rough right now), Cochran must receive the majority of snaps going forward--if not all of them. He exhibits better pocket presence, is less of a turnover risk and proved last season he possesses better intermediate accuracy than what was showcased Friday.
Here's the good news: Unlike the skill positions, the Huskies appear set on who will man each spot along their first-team offensive line.
Here's the bad news: That determination is out of necessity, and those first-stringers have a lot of work to do.
Back-up left tackle Trey Rutherford, a true freshman from Ontario, and his classmate, right guard Ryan Crozier of Plantation, Fla., were the only Huskies to sub in along the line against BYU. Each received half a dozen snaps in the first half during a single series. Rutherford was quickly overmatched and then benched, while Crozier held his own and expertly pulled on a first-down run. Overall, both players, akin to many youngsters on the team, would benefit from a year in the weight room and Diaco's new program.
Unfortunately, starting left tackle Richard Levy stands firmly in that group. Levy was outright abused at times by the Cougar defense, despite the fact it, too, was debuting a new group in the trenches. He needs to do a better job of maintaining run blocks and utilizing his length in pass protection.
Forgive the blurriness of the first photo, but this sequence, suffice to say, was not good.
"Now you see me."
"Now you don't."
Whitmer went down in an expected heap on this play, one of four sacks UConn allowed on the night. Right tackle Dalton Gifford also surrendered a quarterback takedown of his own, one of the handful of times he was pushed back by a BYU bullrush. Overall, the two Husky O-line bookends were sore spots, especially in pass protection. Each tackle was also whistled for an untimely penalty, though that was hardly an uncommon crime Friday.
Lastly, Levy may have already developed a dangerous pre-snap tendency that could tip opponents to whether UConn's lining up for a pass or run. Time will tell if his pattern holds, but let's see if you can find Levy's bad habit in the next three snapshots, all taken before Husky pass plays.
The redshirt sophomore is a good half-yard further off the line of scrimmage than the rest of his linemates, getting an unconscious head start on his pass blocking assignment. It's a common lineman's mistake that can also tip an upcoming, pulling run block. But Levy's duties on the blindside rarely dictate such movement, so it's clear he's preparing for a pass. I'd prefer to wait another game or two before declaring this a surefire tendency, but by that time it may be gone or simply too late.
For now, it's something to keep a very, very careful eye on.
On the interior, senior center and co-captain Alex Mateas played at the most consistent level. Guards Gus Cruz and Tyler Samra demonstrated good movement in the run game, but were overpowered at times in protection.
Lots of short throws and power run schemes. And don't expect anything less than heavy doses of each going forward.
Cummings wanted the ball out of both his quarterbacks' hands quickly and thus limited their deep throw opportunities. UConn tailbacks often had the luxury of running behind a lead blocker, but rarely could every offensive linemen simultaneously gain pushback against BYU's inexperienced front.
The Huskies' favorite player-grouping was 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end), closely followed by 12 and 11. They employed four wide receivers on the same play less than five times over the entire game and worked most often out of I-formations, hoping to attack the Cougar defense up the middle.
Cummings did throw in a few wrinkles that should stick around all season.
On six instances, UConn broke from its huddle, hurried to the line and snapped the ball immediately to run Power-O. The quick-snap ploy proved effective in its first few tries, however BYU began to catch on late in the third quarter and stuffed Josh Marriner running left.
One quarter earlier, Cummings called for the same run scheme out of an unbalanced line.
Finally, Cochran twice threw a quick hitch to a receiver who was given a large cushion off the line of scrimmage by his opposing defensive back. Upon each snap, the rest of the Husky offense began to execute a run play, which indicates the hitch is a regular check Cochran or Whitmer can make if he sees a chance to pick up quick, easy yards.
There are some things none of us can ever change; namely, our "firsts".
For Diaco, the first offensive play of his head-coaching career was disastrous, and it always will be. Redshirt junior running back Max DeLorenzo lost a leverage battle in the hole with an incoming Cougar linebacker, who dropped low, drove his helmet directly into the ball and jarred it loose for a teammate to later recover.
UConn's second drive ended in similar misery, but opened in promising fashion. Cochran connected on a nine-yard curl, which led to two successful runs and a well-executed screen to freshman back Arkeel Newsome. An on-the-move Cruz got just enough of the lone defender remaining who could ruin Newsome's potential gain, and the newest Husky runner was suddenly out in space.
Newsome then capped off his run in physical style by driving into the nearest BYU defender and bouncing out of bounds. The resulting applause for the Ansonia native didn't last long, though, when Cochran tossed the only interception of the game.
Fresh off his unit's first big play of 2014, Cummings in retrospect seemed to be hungry for more via a deep play-action pass. On the play, Davis and No. 2 receiver Deshon Foxx aligned right in an I-Formation set, before running a two-man route combination known as "scissors."
Scissors is a common Cover 4 beater intended to put stress on the playside corner and safety responsible for covering two of four deep quarters of the field with crossing routes. And Cover 4 is exactly what UConn saw.
Outside of Cochran putting a little too much mustard on his throw, the biggest factor behind his turnover may have been a rounded off route from Foxx. The BYU secondary managed to bump the duo just enough in the stem of their routes so when they needed to break off, Davis and Foxx nearly collided.
Knowing Cochran's throw was imminent, Foxx seemed to take a shallower angle in efforts to get to the sideline faster, which left the ball sailing over his head. Although, Foxx's route depth may not have even mattered given the great read Cougars safety Craig Bills got on the throw. As a result, Bills, who I highlighted as a key player in last week's BYU scouting report, hauled in his first pick of the year.
Lastly, it's important to mention this pass was among the handful of dropbacks where Cochran stood well in the face of pressure, especially considering it didn't affect his throwing motion all that much (contrary to the analysis of game color commentator Danny Kanell).
Whitmer received little to no help in his opening series, thanks largely to pass drops and poor protection. Rutherford and Gifford gave up pressures, while back-up wideouts Dhameer Bradley and Kamal Abrams hold onto balls that hit them directly in the hands. Abrams' drop, a particularly painful one, ended the series.
Up and down accuracy from Cochran highlighted the ensuing drive, which followed the lone touchdown series of the game for UConn.
Marriner bailed the Huskies out twice early via a pair of first-down gains, leading to a long McQuillan run after the catch against a busted coverage. Now inside the red zone, UConn stalled on the ground until a defensive pass interference call on third down furthered the drive for the one extra play the unit needed. Marriner subsequently took the pitch on a sweep left and ran behind Levy and Cruz to paydirt.
The wind seemed to be taken out of the Husky coaches' sails when Whitmer started the final series prior to intermission with a poor throw to Abrams. Despite 53 seconds showing on the clock, they proceeded to call for three hand-offs to close the half.
Cochran orchestrated a wonderful drive to open the new half, featuring two strong throws to Davis and multiple DeLorenzo runs. Whitmer then entered on the ninth play of the 11-snap series and suffered immediately from BYU pressure. A strange, feeble fake field goal eventually ended the drive. Abrams reeled in a spectacular catch on the ensuing series, but one of Cochran's overthrows popped up on third down to rob UConn of a second consecutive drive inside the red zone.
Second and third-string pass catchers came in waves this quarter, as Davis made a brief trip to the lockerroom. UConn possessions were highlighted by a slower tempo and a few new play designs such as a quarterback draw, sprint pass and an alternate halfback screen. Excluding the mystifying field goal try that pushed the score to 28-10, the lasting image from this stretch was Davis' stellar catch over excellent coverage as time ticks down.
The big man's still got it.
- Until the younger wideouts prove they can beat tight coverage, if I'm a Husky opponent, I send man-pressure every play Geremy Davis stands on the sideline. No one else out wide scares me right now, and whenever he and Foxx were subbed out for the second-stringer wideouts, UConn went run.
- I get the feeling Husky offensive coaches very much want to find a steady third receiver behind Davis and Foxx. Right now, Abrams and Bradley are ahead in the running, and there wasn't much separating them from Foxx for the No. 2 role against BYU.
- McQuillan is set as the team's primary tight end, and I don't think that will change all season. Sophomore Tommy Myers, a Coventry native, seems much better suited to fulfill a blocker-type role. His routes are a bit stiff and he engages very well in the run game, even against defensive ends.
- The coaches trust DeLorenzo in pass protection above all other running backs, but he offers the least explosion with the ball in his hands. A running-back-by-committee approach ought to continue throughout the fall. But if someone were to take the reins at this point, it would be Marriner.