There is no Tale of the Tape this week because UConn's rainy clash with USF Friday bore a much more important story than anything about Xs, Os or poorly blocked stunts.
And let's be honest—you would never read "Tale of the Tape: UConn vs. USF" unless you'd just lost a bet with a very cruel friend.
This week's focus is instead honed in on Bob Diaco's decree to effectively shut down the passing game after one quarter against the Bulls. To be crystal clear, this piece is not an attack on Diaco as a coach. It is a deconstruction of his decision, how damaging it was to the Huskies and how incorrect his defense of the all-run approach was a couple days later. Put simply: his choice was one of the worst in-game coaching maneuvers I have ever come across.
Now, everyone makes mistakes. The 2014 UConn football season, it seems, is dedicated to affirming that notion more than anything. But the most important part of his choice lies with this quote:
"If it was all unfolding the same way again," he shared Sunday. "I would have done it the same way."
In my best judgment, that statement registers as nothing short of alarming. For if the Huskies are to stay competitive in similar games moving forward, such decisions can never, ever happen again.
Today you can re-read the 17-14 final and shrug. Or you can know why that score fell woefully short in telling Friday's story.
For when he declared UConn would keep to the ground after three drives ...
1. Diaco made the Huskies offense wholly predictable and much more inefficient.
UConn averaged 2.85 yards per play from the time it was forced to strictly run the ball in the early second quarter until Whitmer had to throw down 10 with less than six minutes to go. By extension, Husky running backs gained 6.5 yards per carry in the run-pass balanced first quarter. But from then on, that figure dropped to a measly 2.7.
2. Diaco committed a cardinal sin of offensive coaching: Taking the ball out of your playmakers' hands.
Redshirt senior wide receiver and future NFL draft pick Geremy Davis was eliminated from this game until the Huskies had no choice but to ask him for help in the final moments. What happened when they did that? A 32-yard touchdown reception. Go figure.
3. Diaco reduced at least half of the offense's gameplan and the Huskies' chances to score.
The previous days of hard practice? The hours and hours spent by coaches discovering how to optimally attack the Bulls through the air? All thrown out the rain-beaten window. If they weren't prepared to deal with severe weather in Tampa, Fla., than that fault lies entirely with the coaches. Running the ball constantly without tempo means running the clock, which leaves you fewer chances to score and thus a lower offensive ceiling.
UConn ran a total of 36 plays Friday night. By comparison, some teams last weekend ran nearly that same number in one quarter. Think about that.
4. Diaco denied his players a true chance to develop.
Personnel changes along the offensive line, backfield and receiving corps were still made regularly and multiple Husky back-ups continued to receive needed snaps after the opening quarter. But they were not quality snaps. For how can a player or person grow when asked not to attack his or her weaknesses? UConn's greatest struggle, from this view, is a consistent passing game. They took their lumps against Boise State (eight sacks), but still progressed in the process (242 yards and two touchdowns through the air). Little to absolute nothing was gained from playing kill the carrier with USF.
5. Lastly, Diaco severely lowered UConn's chance at winning.
This point may seem peculiar because it directly contradicts what he preached post-game about his decision. But Diaco was dead wrong. Dead. Wrong.
The passing game in today's era of football is every team's best chance to move the chains. Period. End of story. Relying solely on the run, as a two-dimensional offense, will always be the best way to clip one's offensive wings. Though Diaco's real concerns here lay with the possibility of additional turnovers. He believed the game would get out of hand if Chandler Whiter continued to drop back in the pocket, where he could get strip-sacked again. But prohibiting Whitmer from throwing didn't eliminate the Huskies' risk of further fumbles or interceptions.
In fact, by strictly handing the ball off, he actually increased it.
Prior to Friday's game, Max DeLorenzo, Josh Marriner, Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson had fumbled the ball a combined three times on 69 collective hand-offs this season for a turnover/play rate of just over 4%. Meanwhile, Whitmer, even when you include the first four snaps against USF that held his strip-sack, had thrown a interception or fumbled just four times in 108 plays for a rate of 3.7 percent when Diaco made his call.
It's a marginal difference, but a critically necessary number to understand. Yet instead, as a consequence of what had just flashed before his eyes, Diaco made a hugely reactionary decision that hurt the team. If UConn's running game had instead fumbled once and suffered mightily in the first quarter, would he have declared it off limits? No. We've seen that exact story before in every game this year against BYU, Stony Brook and Boise State.
And in each contest, Diaco went right back to handing the ball off. He should've done the same with the pass.
* * *
In spite all this evidence, his choice is actually semi-understandable when you consider most former defensive coaches take a more antiquated, conservative approach to offense when they assume head coaching positions (Jets fans, tell me this: How many times have you heard the phrase "ground and pound' in the last five-plus years? Exactly.) Nevertheless, eliminating almost all passing was a beyond terrible decision.
Of course, Diaco doesn't see it that way, and he offered his reasoning to the media on a conference call Sunday. Below is the first part of said explanation, as transcribed by John Silver of SNY and The Journal Inquirer:
"I am watching the special teams, I am watching the defense play, and got a chance to watch our first four passes. If I didn't intervene, I was concerned the game would be 35-0, 28-0. I'm more inclined to play ping pong and win the game on special teams than just continue to call plays on offense just to call plays on offense.
"Based on climate, early passes we saw, and based on how backed up like we were, that's why the play pattern tried to tilt (to run only)"
OK. Here's the primary issue: Diaco's explanation, one provided after nearly 48 hours of time he had to reevaluate his choice and the entire game film, makes very, very little sense.
When the first-year headman called off the passing game, sometime prior to the 11:34 mark of the second quarter, his defense had already surrendered an 80-yard touchdown drive, another scoring series and a nine-play drive that ended mere feet shy of the first-down marker.
The special teams Diaco had been watching to that point (or more specifically the punt group—the only special team that matters when you stop passing) had been on the field for just two plays. And on half of those snaps, USF made a deep return into UConn territory, only to have the ball brought back due to a holding call.
Sophomore punter Justin Wain did launch superb kicks of 51 and 45 yards on those plays. But two snaps, no matter the unit, is hardly a sufficient sample to assess how well a group is performing. Even more importantly, he should know that Bulls punter Matti Ciabatti (who later won AAC Special Teams Player of the Week) had been averaging more than 45 yards per kick entering Friday night. Thus, even if Wain was en route to a career day, it wouldn't have mattered given Ciabatti was going to send the ball flying right back and perhaps even farther.
In order to beat USF, UConn was going to have to win somewhere other than the punt game.
So how could Diaco have assessed either unit's performance as positive enough or sufficiently impactful to rely on for the rest of the night? And what does "calling plays on offense just to call plays on offense" even mean?
Finally, UConn's first four pass plays last Friday were admittedly dreadful. They resulted in a strip-sack, a holding call, an intentional grounding and one illegal chop-block penalty. If you didn't feel repulsed during those sequences, you weren't watching.
While almost all of those errors point to horrid offensive line play, the true underlying cause is different.
On Whitmer's first dropback, Johnson, a freshman tailback, missed his assignment in blitz pick-up. Next, left guard Gus Cruz took a holding penalty that was at best questionable, though he did undoubtedly give up a pressure, which Whitmer still managed to throw around. On the intentional grounding, both Cruz and Marriner, another freshman back, missed an incoming blitzer in pass protection that led to an illegal throwaway. Lastly, freshman guard Ryan Crozier, who's played sparingly, shoved a Bulls rusher in the back as DeLorenzo cut blocked him in the backfield.
Yes, offensive linemen are involved in these cases. But the mistakes, more than anything, appear to be mental errors committed by young players who are not starters. Johnson, Marriner and Crozier were all in the game as part of Diaco's rotational program. If he truly wanted to stop the bleeding against USF, he would've stuck with his most experienced starting group.
Except we all know that's not what this season is about. 2014 has been dedicated to development and building a foundation. In turn, the Huskies ought to have kept with their plan, personnel, play call or otherwise, no matter what the circumstances, as Diaco has been declaring since Day One.
Now onto the second part of his explanation:
"... (the decision) was what we needed to do, which gave us an opportunity at the end of the game to win the game. As bad as it was, crazy as it was, as abysmal as it was looking on offense, we still had an opportunity to win the game at the end of the game."
His proposal here sounds fair. But, again, it's wrong.
UConn did not have a chance to win at the end because it had been refusing to pass. The Huskies were still within reach soley thanks to their defense, and the sheer ineptness of USF's offense.
The Bulls' average starting field position from the second quarter on (excluding a kneeldown that ended the first half) was their own 41-yardline. How they managed to yield only a field goal from all of those short fields is beyond a miracle. But let's not leave it up to one stat or even two (hello, 3.8 yards per play).
Leading up to Friday night, the Bulls were 113th out of 128 FBS teams in Bill Connelly's advanced S&P+ offensive rankings, which, for comparative purposes, slotted UConn at No. 118.
That's how bad USF is with the ball in its hands (and UConn, too).
So, bringing this point back into the overall fold, if Diaco is going to preach a focus on development and the grand importance of process, he cannot use final results, particularly those that cast a misleadingly, favorable light, to gauge his program's progress. He must, in his own words, not let anything get in the way of improvement this season, even if it means his own. And, as Diaco also smartly says, that includes the elimination of all things that lead to losing.
The Huskies did not come within a field goal of the Bulls last week because Diaco decided back flip back in time to 1950s offensive football. They lost because, damn it, UConn and USF always play a close, hideous game no matter the weather, the time, the stakes or extraordinarily poor coaching direction.