Maine, in their first game under a new, young head coach, came into East Hartford, CT and took the UConn Huskies to the wire, almost pulling off a big upset. The 24-21 UConn win was not pretty, especially given the relatively lofty expectations in Storrs for 2016.
The offense received the brunt of this blame, with coordinator Frank Verducci’s relatively conservative play calling serving as the main gripe for many members of the Husky faithful. However, after re-watching the game, it may be on the other side of the ball that the real schematic issues lie.
Offense: A Matter of Execution
The Huskies’ offensive game plan is not surprising and should rarely deviate from week to week. They want to run at everyone, utilizing the big offensive line to create gaps for running backs Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson. Newsome, specifically, is benefited by his small stature as he can hide behind the bigger linemen and make his decisions incognito.
Passing-wise, the Huskies like starting short and then eventually expanding outwards, with Bryant Shirreffs progressively attempting to find Noel Thomas in the screen game, then the slant game, then the deep game, with a little bit of the Huskies’ other receiving options getting some run as well.
Verducci’s planning proved to be effective, eventually, especially after the first quarter when they began to get a handle on Maine’s blitzing style. The Huskies were able to run effectively for the most part. The passing game, on the other hand, was a mess of self-inflicted errors where the Huskies failed to capitalize on opportunities.
The best examples of this are two Noel Thomas plays in the second quarter
With 1:21 left, Thomas beats his man on a corner route. Shirreffs throws a ball that could have led Noel a bit better, but it still results in a drop at the 20 yard line rather than a catch that, reasonably, should have been made. Thomas can make some high-level plays, but the lack of consistency on deep balls is a prevalent issue that prevents him from being the productive receiver that he could be. This was a good call by Verducci, but UConn needs to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.
Later on this same drive, Shirreffs missed a wide open Noel Thomas, overthrowing him when he had room to spare.
Shirreffs has to play with more composure if the Huskies are to return to a bowl game. He ran the ball too much in this game, taking unwieldy hits that will add up over the course of the season. Then, on plays like this one, he rushes the play, not executing correctly despite a well-run route by Thomas and a nicely designed play call. Issues like this will have to be cleaned up over the course of the season, or UConn will be even more beleaguered against tougher competition. Shirreffs also missed a number of open receivers, sometimes choosing to tuck and run and other times attempting to a closely-guarded receiver.
Defense: Slot Machine Problems
The Husky defense was very strong last year, especially in the secondary where they forced 14 interceptions over the course of the season. However, in a year of great success, it is a failure that sticks out: UConn’s game against Cincinnati, where the Huskies surrendered 327 receiving yards and got blown out by the Bearcats, 37-13.
The reason Cincinnati was able to move the ball so effectively was the lack of pressure placed on their receivers, especially their slot players who were able to get free releases and easily get up the seam. Maine attacked UConn in a similar way, which is why they had so much success.
The first play where this is evident is on this big play by Jaleel Reed.
Reed gets a free release off the line of scrimmage, Anthony Watkins misses a tackle in the open field, and then he’s off to the races. Even before Watkins misses the tackle, though, Reed already had a 15 yard gain.
The Huskies like to utilize Vontae Diggs and other linebackers/safeties to give bumps to slot receivers rather than play more aggressively in press, which is even more important given Watkins’ clear shortcomings at this point in his development. This strategy is probably connected to their cornerbacks lack of size, which is sensible, but a solve has to be concocted to deal with slot players like Reed. Unless UConn decides to get a bit more aggressive in its pre-snap defense, the secondary will be eaten alive by slot receivers and backs in future games.
Reed’s big touchdown catch came from the slot, too.
He makes it 30 yards down the field without a defensive player even touching him, then skies over Watkins and Obi Melifonwu to make the grab. Watkins actually had the right idea on this play in trying to take Reed out of it, as this would give Melifonwu an unimpeded route to make an interception. However, Watkins’ box out was a little weak and Melifonwu was a step slow, leading to the touchdown. This was yet another big play that, partially, was due to a lack of aggression on the defensive side of the ball.
Hopefully the Huskies can figure out a happier medium between disrupting receivers off the line of scrimmage and also compensating for their lack of size on the outside. Otherwise, they’re going to have major issues with some of the other teams on their schedule.
Week 1 of the college football season is always a little weird, with certain teams getting off to strong starts and others sputtering out of the gate. Bob Diaco and company are probably relieved to have escaped Thursday night with a win. Hopefully, they learn from their shortcomings and recalibrate for next week against Navy.
The offense needs to get sharper and the defensive coaches have to switch up their scheming a bit. If they do both of these things, the Huskies should be in good shape in the coming weeks.