The UConn Huskies have had a heart-stopping season thus far, with every game to date coming down to the final moments. Through wins against Maine and Virginia and that loss against Navy, though, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs has stepped up.
Shirreffs has only passed for 555 yards and a solitary touchdown this year, but he’s at a 71 percent completion percentage and is also the team’s leading rusher. The biggest difference between the 2015 and 2016 iteration of Shirreffs, though, is his presence of mind in pressure situations, especially on third down.
Last year, Shirreffs only converted 24 of 81 third down attempts, for a 29.6% clip. That figure was 90th in the country last year. In 2016 to date, Shirreffs has converted 9 of 17 third downs, sitting at 52.94%. This is tied for eighth along with Michigan State’s Tyler O’Connor and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans.
Shirreffs’ poise on third down also ranks him as the second best quarterback in the American Athletic Conference behind only Houston’s Greg Ward, who is the top third down quarterback in the country with an 81.2% conversion rate.
Granted, Virginia was the toughest defense that the Huskies have faced thus far this year, and Shirreffs did not have his best outing against the Cavaliers. Due to ineptitude on the ground and some issues in execution, the team faced a multitude of third and longs and were unable to convert on many of them. However, one third down conversion against Virginia is emblematic of where Shirreffs has seen success this season, and how the Huskies can move the ball consistently against other opponents.
The play starts in the spread, with three wide receivers and a flex tight end split out. Tyler Davis and Noel Thomas are the two slot players. Shirreffs takes the snap and Mayala clears out the cornerback, running downfield and forcing the defensive players back toward Shirreffs. Mayala has been a revelation this year, even as just a decoy, and the Cavalier cornerback has to respect his vertical ability on this play. His presence opens up the field for Shirreffs, who now just has to look underneath for Davis or Thomas.
Davis busts the zone, letting Thomas cross while guarded by a mere linebacker. Davis will have to learn how to be more savvy as a route runner, but with five catches for 38 yards on the year, teams have to at least account for him. Thomas, with his cornerback in a short zone, is then one-on-one with a linebacker, who he beats easily for a 22 yard gain. This is how the short passing game can work effectively, and it is not the first time this year that Shirreffs has thrived with this simple play call and spread scheme.
Throughout the Navy game, the UConn offense was humming when Shirreffs would get a chance to take the snap, survey the field, and quickly find the open crosser. Thomas converted four third downs on crosses against Navy, and Davis also helped with a couple of big plays.
On other plays, when defenders cheated up, Mayala and Aaron McLean exploited one-on-one match-ups to make vertical plays. Shirreffs’ lofty 3rd down conversion rating is mostly due to that game, and yet his coaching staff seems content to stagnate on offense, committing to a running game even when the process looks fruitless.
With Syracuse coming up, the Huskies should look to open things up a bit against a depleted secondary and see a lot of success in the passing game. Hopefully they can use their quarterback’s talents appropriately given the poised decision-making he has shown in key situations so far this season.