After a second look at the game, here’s what we learned about the new UConn Huskies offense.
The Huskies ran nearly every play out of two formations: Three wide receivers, one tight end and a running back, known as 11 (For 1 running back and 1 tight end), or four wide receivers with a running back, which is called 10. Towards the end of the game, with a lot of obvious running situations, they went with two receivers, two tight ends and a running back, or 21. Almost every snap came out of the shotgun.
The passing strategy appeared to be centered around throwing the ball short to receivers or running backs in space and having them make defenders miss to pick up yards. However, there was a difference between how David Pindell and Bryant Shirreffs employed this strategy.
Nearly everything Pindell threw was five yards or less. He rarely threw beyond the sticks and when he did, it fell incomplete. Conversely, Shirreffs used the short passing game effectively but also threw some mid-range balls downfield when the opportunity was there and even made some attempts deep. This allowed the Huskies to pick up bigger chunks of yardage, keep the defense honest, and move the offense more efficiently.
Why Shirreffs is the Starter
The trait that separates Shirreffs and Pindell the most is decision-making. This is expected, as Shirreffs has two years of FBS experience under his belt while Pindell has none, but the difference was stark. With Shirreffs, the offense was executed more deliberately and with more precision. Shirreffs got the ball out of his hands as soon as possible, whereas Pindell often struggled progressing through his reads and was prone to holding onto the ball.
Another key factor is leadership. Pindell himself admitted he’s quiet but a quarterback has to be one of the leaders on the team. Shirreffs is familiar with the team and was demonstrably more vocal with his teammates. While it may seem small, these things are big for morale on a team which was facing a 20-7 deficit against an FCS opponent.
Pindell obviously showed something which made the staff name him the starter fairly early in camp. Although he may have a higher ceiling than Shirreffs, he clearly has a lower floor. For UConn right now, that makes Shirreffs a better option to start, as the Huskies’ margin for error is proven to be relatively low. If the season takes a downward turn, it may make sense to get Pindell back in there for his development, but with bowl eligibility still a stretch goal it makes sense to see where Shirreffs can take this team in his senior year.
Tight End Usage
Another facet of the offense expected to be bigger under Lashlee was the usage of the tight ends. That wasn’t the case, however, as Alec Bloom finished with just one catch on two targets while Tommy Myers had none.
While the players are listed as co-starters, Bloom certainly saw the bulk of the snaps. They rarely lined up inline or out wide. Instead, they were positioned just behind either of the guards. Both targets to Bloom came on the same play; The senior lined up behind the right guard and on the snap, he leaked out into the flat. The play-action froze the linebackers and when Bloom got the ball there were no defenders in his vicinity.
Running the Dang Ball
UConn’s run game was hot and cold for most of the night. Arkeel Newsome struggled, but much of that was due to the fact that when he got the ball, there simply was no room for him to run. Any yardage Newsome gained was created out of nothing.
Hopkins, for whatever reason, seemed to have more space to run, but not much. Like Newsome, he created most things for himself, especially on his first touchdown run of the day.
The Huskies were in a two-tight end set, with Bloom on the line and Myers setting up behind the line. Hopkins lined up behind Pindell, who was a few steps behind center in the pistol, but bounced the run to the outside when things fell apart in the middle.
The key play is made by left tackle Matt Peart (#65), who does an excellent job of sealing the edge, not only blocking his man but forcing a second defender to go around him. This allowed Hopkins to get to the outside and beat the rest of the defense into the end zone.
As has been the case the past few seasons, the offensive line struggled. Run blocking was especially an issue as the linemen failed to maintain leverage and were turned around by the defenders, allowing them to make a stop. While good coaching helps this, it’s hard to imagine much of a turnaround happening this season in this regard.
Surprisingly, however, pass blocking showed some promise. Holy Cross played with a four-man front most of the night but blitzed frequently. When it was just a four-man rush, the line held fairly strong. But when pressure came, the Huskies struggled to communicate and the blitzer often had a free run at the quarterback. With some more time to practice together and develop chemistry, pass blocking may not be a major flaw for this team.