Once we move past the negativity surrounding UConn’s loss to Navy, Husky faithful should take solace in the fact that there were many reasons for encouragement on the offensive side of the ball.
Even though the Huskies got off to a slow start, they came to life in the second half, with quarterback Bryant Shirreffs playing the best game of his career in leading the Huskies to 24 unanswered points and and the cusp of victory. Shirreffs went 23 of 26 for 239 yards and a touchdown pass to Noel Thomas, who also had a great day.
What changed in the second half? The answer is simple - better pass protection and less predictability.
In the first half, the Huskies ran many of the same routes that they ended up eventually converting on in the second half. Thomas consistently was able to leverage wide open space in the middle of the field and make plays after the catch. However, when the Huskies tried attempting longer passes, Shirreffs faced some major pressure that the offensive line was not able to manage.
On this play, young right tackle Matt Peart doesn’t account for the free runner, leading to a sack on Shirreffs. Thomas was wide open on that 2nd and 7 play, and without that pressure he has an easy first down reception.
Peart is a young player and as the game wound on, he settled down, as did the entire line. They only allowed this one sack throughout the game, and protected exceptionally well for Shirreffs in the second half. Blocks were sustained, and Shirreffs had enough time to find his shallow crosser.
If there is one thing that is evident this year, it is that this Husky team is much more talented on the offensive side of the ball than in the past.
Thomas and Hergy Mayala are a great set of receivers, consistent and able to make tough catches. Alec Bloom, Tommy Myers, and Tyler Davis are all above average tight ends. Arkeel Newsome and Tyraiq Beals are off to slow starts but their explosiveness is known. Ron Johnson looks really souped up, showing off the body of a legitimate NFL prospect running back. With Shirreffs at the helm, this offense has a chance to be downright exciting, something that has not been said about a UConn team since the Orlovsky years.
And yet…we get to the second issue plaguing this side of the ball: Inertia.
Playing physical, pro-style football is a fundamental part of Frank Verducci’s values as an old-school offensive coordinator, and Bob Diaco’s mindset as a head coach. However, the ultra conservatism in the Navy game led to UConn punting twice on Navy’s side of the 50, running three straight times inside their own 5 with a three point lead, and attempting to run the ball into the end zone with no timeouts on the half yard line with 17 seconds left. All of these were mistakes that are due to values entrenched in the coaching staff, and all should be concerning when projecting UConn’s offense moving forward.
After the game, Diaco tried to sound contrite about the end of the game, but the same refrain kept coming up all over again. “We were at the half yard line,” he said. In Diaco’s mind, a good football team should be able to simply move the ball that short distance into the end zone. That’s “proper football.” This approach echoed throughout the game. A team with the lead should run the ball three times late in the game to run clock, no matter where on the field they are located. 4th and medium in opposing territory? Time to punt.
To be fair, the fake field goal call was creative and well-executed. However, this creativity did not carry over into other situational offensive calls. If the Huskies are to make some noise in the American, the coaching staff needs to place more trust in their passing game and ditch the run if it’s not working.
This team has weapons, and they can compete with most of their opponents the rest of the way if they are used properly. If players are handcuffed to outdated offensive strategies, though, the Huskies run the risk of being overly predictable and not achieving to their potential.