Here's my one big, grand takeaway from breaking down UConn's 38-21 loss to Boise State Saturday:
For the first game in three, we didn't learn anything new in the big picture. Not a thing.
And in turn, we finally gained a beginning grasp on who these Huskies are.
Through two kickoffs, the reports you and I read about Bob Diaco and co. detailed process, personnel shuffling, growth, inconsistency and anything else that could ever amount to "TBD" or an incomplete grade. More to the point, we couldn't say whether the Husky offense was truly as bad as it played against Stony Brook, nor could we discern if the defense was as dominant.
The season back then, after all, was only a two-game-old infant.
Now in week four, UConn has officially hit the quarter-mark of its 2014 campaign and an assessment or report card today is fair (though ONLY after going back to the film) because Boise State didn't just provide one more gametape. It was a third chance in three games to judge UConn against a different quality of opponent. It was the final observation needed for a sufficient sample size when evaluating players.
True, the process is still ongoing. But the bottom line is this week is a checkpoint and a very important one at that.
Bearing that in mind, if you haven't read up on our previous Tales of the Tape detailing the constructs of UConn's defensive system against Stony Brook and the offense's performance versus BYU, click away.
For now, it's onto Boise State and where what kind of football team the Huskies are shaping up to be in 2014 .
1. Whitmer gets a game ball
Considering his supporting cast and the numerous sacks, an argument could be made that Saturday showcased Chandler Whitmer's finest performance since 2012. While the fourth-quarter interceptions proved indeed to be backbreaking (more on those later), the senior signal caller was truly responsible for only one, and he demonstrated huge strides in his weakest area: pocket presence.
Faced against a potent Broncos' pass rush, Whitmer took off when necessary and stood in during the majority of snaps that called for him to plant and throw. One of his initial passes came squarely in the face of pressure, as shown here.
On Whitmer's first touchdown pass in the second quarter, you can see him fight against the urge to take off prematurely. The Broncos came through easily on a stunt, only to be slowed by a Josh Marriner, who was back in blitz-pick up and allowed his quarterback a chance to look back downfield. From there, the gunslinger dropped a beautiful ball into Alec Bloom for six points.
Whitmer's improved pocket presence, as well has his performance on the third downs when he was afforded ample time, absolutely deserve praise. Now he was by no means perfect, but I have to give high marks overall for hanging in and nearly delivering a terrific upset when most quarterbacks, including Whitmers of the past, would have bailed.
2. A truly offensive performance
No matter how you slice, frame or sugarcoat the blocking up front, this UConn offensive line was a hot, muggy mess Saturday. Forget the yards statistics. Every starter was whipped on run and pass play at least once against Boise State and would've just "had a bad game" if each of the lineman's days had not been equally horrid. Redshirt senior Gus Cruz was the only who rose above the rest with an average performance.
On the fifth snap of the game, either right guard Tyler Samra or center Alex Mateas whiffed on an assignment (likely Mateas), allowing the Broncos' Armand Nance to destroy Arkeel Newsome and cause the fumble that put Boise State up 7-0.
Not long afterward, Samra showed up poorly again in the run game, as he was turned immediately off the snap and into a front-row seat for another backfield takedown.
This isn't to pick on the junior New Jersey native as much as illustrate how easy it was to select a negative play from the line at any given moment. For instance, Richard Levy was completely moved around on this third down and short sequence, when he nearly cost Max DeLorenzo a chance to convert right from the hand-off.
Earlier, Levy surrendered the second sack of the game all on his own lonesome. The end of the next segment will provide a list of who was at fault for each quarterback drop, but meanwhile, the biggest trouble with this group surfaced when blocking stunts. Akin to last year's September woes, UConn's front five couldn't handle basic twists by the Broncos' defensive line on Saturday.
In the GIF below, the Huskies are in a combination protection where the four linemen pictured right slide left to protect an assigned gap, while right tackle Andreas Knappe is one-on-one with the man across from him. Typically, "slide protections" are designed to simplify pass blocking and defend against stunting defenders. In addition, running backs left in blitz pick-up usually will work over to the side of the man-on-man blocking in these combination schemes.
As you'll see, the slide left fails to halt the tackle-tackle stunt, and the back does not shift to help Knappe. I cannot say for certain what the Huskies' exact call was here, but there's no denying something went very wrong despite the eventual completion. And this sort of breakdown up front was hardly a unique case Saturday.
Overall, the Huskies' offensive line is simply outmanned, outgunned and out of excuses. The group just stinks, and everyone knows it. The back-ups did not offer much in the way of assistance Saturday, as freshman left tackle Trey Rutherford was beat badly on his first snap. Though first-year right guard Ryan Crozier again performed well in limited time.
It should also be noted here that starting right tackle Dalton Gifford was only marginally better than fellow first-teamers Samra and Levy, if at all. He was, in fact, responsible for the ugliest pass block of the afternoon at the end of the first half. And how about his replacement, the 6-foot-8 Knappe? Well...
3. The Andreas Knappe project
Moms everywhere like to trot out the philosophy that when you don't have something nice to say, you ought not to say anything at all. What they forget to mention is in sports, when an athlete is extraordinarily tall and an analyst doesn't have anything positive to share, he/she will almost always fall back on reiterating his height. Thus...
Andreas Knappe is 6-foot-8...
Andreas Knappe is 6-foot-8...
Andreas Knappe is 6-foot-8...
To be fair, this great Dane is out of position. His conversion from defensive end to right tackle was well-publicized, especially after he appeared in the two-deep depth chart. From the looks of his first game, I wouldn't be shocked if he soon disappeared from the two-deep. Of course, though, he won't.
There's no help behind him, Knappe is developing and, per Diaco, nothing can be allowed to stop development this season. The headman also shared first among all things Knappe on Monday that the new tackle "competed," which is exactly what moms tell their coach sons to say when there's nothing good to tell the press.
Mostly kidding. Knappe's kick-slide and reach against Boise State were decent, but the waist-bending must go and his pad level and work against speed rushers has to improve. The redshirt sophomore's first career offensive snap really hits home the last part of that to-do list.
And the first two bullet points (waist-bending and pad level) can be seen clear as day in the below, choppy GIF.
1.) Out-schemed (overload blitz vs. empty backfield)
2.) Levy beat (badly)
3.) Knappe on a stunt switch
4.) Whitmer runs into collapsing pocket/Knappe
6.) Knappe and Samra on a stunt switch
7.) Whitmer holding onto the ball too long OR coverage sack (can't see full view)
4. A born identity
Ideally, the Huskies want to their offensive foundation to be that of a power running team. They rely heavily on Power-O and dive runs, often also attacking behind either two tight ends or a blocking fullback. Through the air, Whitmer and co. are forced to rely on a quick-trigger passing game largely predicated on three-step drops, play-action or moving pockets. The aerial attack is at its best when carving up the middle of the field, considering the skill sets of its wideouts and quarterback.
UConn will sprinkle in deeper route combinations and five/seven-step drops, but coordinator Mike Cummings can only do so on a sporadic basis given his porous line.
New wrinkles shown against Boise State included consecutive zone-read plays in the fourth quarter and motioning tight ends back to the formation once they started out wide.
5. Evaluating Tim Boyle
There's not much to share here except the sophomore's top-notch physical tools are still extremely evident. Boyle threw the ball very well and surprisingly appeared unfazed by incoming rushers. Though I'd caution against putting much stock into what was essentially garbage-time snaps. His first series, the Huskies' third offensive drive of the game, taught us little, as it lasted three plays and his first two throws seemed to be predetermined.
Nevertheless, here's a look at the sophomore under pressure late in the game.
6. Turnover breakdown
As promised, here's how a look at each of the disastrous plays as they happened.
First, Newsome's fumble was much more a result of him having little chance to secure Whitmer's hand-off before getting popped by Nance, so it's difficult to blame him for losing the ball. That one's on the offensive line.
Next, Whitmer's first interception was neither a good decision nor throw against tight coverage. He fired across the field to a blanketed Deshon Foxx and didn't put enough mustard on the throw. Lastly, the "pick" to Geremy Davis was not on the quarterback. If anything, Whitmer threw slightly behind No. 85 on the slant, which kept the ball farther away from the closing defender.
Nevertheless, Davis surrendered possession in what is likely to be the only time we see this happen all year.
1. Let's talk about Obi
Of all the kinds of tough days a safety can endure, Obi Melifonwu suffered perhaps the worst of all last weekend. The second-year safety was beat for two touchdown passes, a separate 39-yard bomb, and he could've given up more. Oh, and there was an deep pass-interference penalty.
Thankfully for the youngsters and the coaches, there appeared to be one underlying error for most of his miscues: poor eye discipline.
For a a safety in last-line-of-defense coverage, Melifonwu must be aware of the development of deeper routes as well as the attention of the quarterback, which will typically indicate where the ball is about to go. On Saturday, Melifonwu was far more focused on the latter.
The sophomore was caught flat-footed and looking into the backfield on the first touchdown surrendered. Later, he repeated the same mistake, which led to the pass-interference. Here he also failed to get his head around upon the arrival of the ball.
The 39-yard pass Melifonwu gave up in the second half can partly be attributed to an excellent Bronco play-call against the Huskies' deployed defense (four verticals vs. Cover 3). But had he not jumped at the quarterback's first glance downfield, Melifonwu wouldn't have opened up such a large hole behind him for the big pick-up.
Lastly, as for the second touchdown he stood nearby for, there's honestly little else a defensive back can do than what he executed. Boise State scored on a great pitch-and-catch between their starting quarterback and No. 1 pass catcher.
Good play by them, and it's onto the next.
2. Settling into a 3-4 identity
UConn rarely rotated out of its 3-4 base against the Broncos, jumping into a four-man line solely for a couple obvious passing down. The defense also debuted some new sub-packages (see below), but the 3-4 identity of this unit has grown clear. While Saturday was far from their best respective games in a Husky uniform, Julian Campenni and Mikal Myers continue to play well at the nose, as the likes of Kenton Adayemi, B.J. McBryde, Cole Ormsby, Folorunso Fatukasi and others hold the end spots.
And the linebackers, though mostly undersized for traditional 3-4 ‘backers, have all been worthy of their assignments. Put them all together, and this defense is a unit looking to stop the run with a heavier from, limit big pass plays through its coverage calls and ultimately force offenses into sustaining longer drives if they're to score. This system is a far more complicated than simply "bend but don't break", but that kind of assessment isn't far off.
3. Sub-packages emerge
We saw a couple nickel and dime sets against Boise State, the latter of which produced the team's lone sack on a neat slot blitz that also featured a twist up front. Still, UConn isn't deploying many different looks or pressures, but it was interesting to see the Huskies switch more to man-coverage in critical situations during the first half. They typically operated in Cover 1 (man-coverage with one safety deep) fronted by a five-man rush, which can be seen in the images below.
After halftime, the defense swung back towards its more conservative zone looks with a three-man rush on third downs, allowing the Broncos time to convert long third downs. Moving forward, I would expect more of a coverage mix, as the Huskies were effective when they pressured, particularly in those man-to-man schemes.
4.) Marquise Vann and Andrew Adams run defense
These two are sure-tackling studs against the run every time you look up. That is all.
Oh, and this GIF of Andrew Adams blowing up a jet sweep.
Questions from Twitter
@bleeny 72: Can you rank/specifically discuss the individual o-lineman. Also, I felt Walsh was good in blocking run and pass
See above for the discussion of individuals, but I would rank the offensive linemen as such: Cruz, Mateas, Gifford, Samra and Levy. Knappe, Rutherford Crozier and were excluded from this list due to an insufficient sample of snaps, but if they were eligible, I would put the tackles at the bottom and slot Crozier at third-best. Lastly, back-up fullback Matt Walsh did have a good game Saturday, but his snaps were limited so it would be unfair to expand much beyond that.
@epark88: Are Obi's pass coverage woes correctable, either technique-wise or schematically? I'll hang up and listen....
They're all correctable and of the technique variety, which you can take in either a positive or negative light. For me, I would be happy this is the case given how much of the season and his career remains to fix them.
@joey3strikes: how many plays did Davis come off the field, especially on 3rd down
If Davis came off the field on third down it was not more than once or twice. While I didn't chart exact snap counts for this game, the veteran wideout did definitely appear to be taken off fewer times than in the two previous games.
@MikeIrr: Was Whitmer h
@AnthonyKrize: Chandler in the pocket overall - moving out of it too fast and rolling right tendencies, etc. vs. Boyle's limited snaps.
Yes, Whitmer does tend to roll right (like most right-handed quarterbacks), but I don't see that as a problem for now. As mentioned above, his pocket presence was better, and Whitmer will be the choice under center until he can't lead the offense effectively.
- Unlike most of #UConnTwitter during the game, I did not share the same degree of outrage when it came to forcing the ball to Geremy Davis. Yes, the star wideout should get double-digit targets each game. But Whitmer's decision to make Deshon Foxx his go-to receiver against Boise State is a part of the Huskies'"scratch where it itches" approach. Davis, for the most part, received extra attention all afternoon. Consequently, Foxx had opportunities to make plays on the other side of the field, and he did, thanks to Whitmer's attention to him.
- I sent out a few tweets while I broke down the tape, but this loss felt awfully similar to last year's Michigan defeat; right down to the usage of this same dime-package blitz.
- An upcoming UConn opponent, I can't tell you which, is going to hurt the Husky defense repeatedly with play-action. Just wait.
- Adayemi deserved the bump he received up to the first-string in Monday's depth chart. I'm not sure about Cole Ormsby at defensive end, though. I think the former linebacker does possess some pass-rush ability, but fighting in the trenches on rotational snaps here or there is a far different battle than starting there for four quarters.