Bryant Shirreffs can only do so much
To put it another way: Cincinnati's pass defense is so good that there wasn't much Shirreffs could have done, especially with the limited amount of time allotted to him by the combination of a strong Bearcats pass rush combined with a poor UConn offensive line.
This loss was not on Shirreffs. When the pass wasn't working, he ran pretty well, picking up 90 yards on 17 carries, good for over five yards per run. That's a solid number, and when the quarterback run is working for the offense, that normally allows a lot of opportunity for the pass offense. That just wasn't the case on Saturday, because Cincinnati is really just too good for UConn to handle right now. Shirreffs did all he could, though.
Heat of take: Steaming
The linebackers are not getting the job done
It seems like every week a different defensive unit stands out in a bad way. The linebacking corps was responsible for a lot of big plays against the Bearcats, showing some weaknesses that we might have overlooked earlier in the season when UConn played weaker teams.
Against the run, or in short pass plays, the linebackers often struggle to make tackles or contain the ballcarrier as a unit. Graham Stewart takes strange angles that often take him out of the play, Marquise Vann unfortunately hasn't looked the same since a leg injury against Army, and Luke Carrezola, despite having big play ability, has looked inconsistent for much of the year. Some of these are understandable issues; injuries can take a lot out of a player's athleticism, and underclassmen typically struggle to make a positive impact on every play. At the same time, those issues do not make the play of the linebackers look any better in retrospect. There's reason to be optimistic going forward, but for the last few weeks, the linebackers group has been hindering the overall performance of the defense.
There's also something to be said in the secondary's favor about how little help they've gotten from the linebackers in coverage this season. Every great defense at every level of football gets pass coverage support from their linebackers. UConn's pass coverage normally just consists of the defensive backs. Hopefully that changes soon.
Heat of take: Boiling
Tyraiq Beals and Noel Thomas could end up as UConn's best wide receiver combo ever
Let's be honest for a second-- for all the talent they put into the NFL during the Randy Edsall era and beyond, the UConn program has never exactly had the greatest of wide receivers. Sure, guys like Kashif Moore, Marcus Easley, and Geremy Davis all stood out on offense, but it was rare when the #2 receiver behind them made a legitimate impact on the offense. Often, it was the tight end that became the de facto secondary option for the quarterback. That's partially because UConn has seemingly always had very good tight ends in their FBS/I-A years, and even before that, starting with 14-year NFL veteran and '94 graduate Brian Koslowski and continuing through today, as both Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers have been important pieces to the offense at times.
However, it's also because UConn has rarely had two very good wide receivers at the same time. Right now, that's changing.
Noel Thomas is already standing out as the replacement to Geremy Davis that UConn desperately needed, leading the team in receptions and yards. Tyraiq Beals is quickly becoming an asset alongside him, having worked his way up from the second-string in week one to the likely starter for the rest of the season. Both look legitimately good, don't seem to be limited in any way, and both could either stretch the field or play closer to the line in a possession-based scheme.
Why I say they could become the best one-two punch at wide receiver ever at UConn is because, barring an unexpected bolt to the NFL Draft from Noel Thomas, they'll both have another season in Storrs. Thomas is likely an NFL prospect, and as a junior could make himself eligible for selection at the end of this season, but I expect that he'll return for his senior season. Beals is a true freshman. He'll be here for a little while longer.
It's not a stiff competition for best wide receiver combination in UConn history. Right now the tandem occupying the top spot is probably the one year Kashif Moore and Marcus Easley were both healthy together (with Moore and Michael Smith at number two), but that's certainly an open discussion. However, I think Thomas and Beals could easily usurp them from their title, especially if Thomas is back next season.
Heat of take: Ashen