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Hot Take Tuesday: Coaching is Causing Defensive Problems

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At a certain point, some of the blame has to lie with the coaching staff.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s disclaimer: This column is called Hot Take Tuesday. The opinions and predictions contained in this column will not all be accurate. In keeping with the hot take tradition of sports (particularly football) media, you’re probably better off taking in the spirit of the take rather than the words themselves. Don’t worry, at the end I’ll tell you how seriously to take it.

On Saturday, UConn went to Memphis expecting a football game and instead were treated to a demolition, losing by a score of 55-14. If you’ve been following UConn football all year, you’ll know that this is not the first time the Huskies have been creamed on the football field. In fact, their performance has been so bad that one statistical measure ranks them as the worst team in all of FBS football.

What’s worse is that it’s hard for any UConn fan to argue with that. While the offense has improved, starting seemingly every offensive drive after receiving a kickoff makes it hard for any team to score. The Huskies rank among the 10 worst FBS teams in offensive points per game, but that pales in comparison to the defense, of course, which ranks dead last in points allowed per game.

Sure, some of that has to do with the strength of the Huskies schedule—they have played the second toughest in the AAC and the 25th hardest in all of college football—but there are other teams of similar talent playing similarly tough schedules, and none of them are giving up unanswered points at anywhere near the rate UConn is.

Naturally, there’s an explanation for giving up a lot of points to UCF (seventh in scoring in FBS) or Memphis (11th) or Syracuse (14th). The one thing that is inexcusable, though, is that every UConn opponent has outscored their own scoring average when playing the Huskies. UConn’s opponents average 53.7 points per game, short of only Alabama's offensive average—and even the Crimson Tide scored only 45 points in one game, fewer than any UConn opponent has scored.

Since UConn’s defense is playing worse than any other defense, the question that matters is whether or not UConn’s defensive players are the least talented in the country. Simply put, I don’t believe they are.

Players vastly underplaying their talent is normally a sign of one of three things. One is that they’re injured, and we have no evidence that’s the case. Two is that they’ve given up, and I don’t think that’s it either (the constantly-hustling Tyler Coyle would disprove this theory by himself). The third, and most likely, is that something’s going wrong with the coaching.

It’s impossible to put the bulk of the blame on either Randy Edsall or defensive coordinator Billy Crocker without knowing how they divide responsibilities, but the defensive coaching has completely broken down.

On the on-field strategy level, most notable is the excessive amount of cushion outside cornerbacks give to opposing wide receivers from the line of scrimmage. The linebackers do not provide adequate coverage to help their secondary in one-on-one situations, the cornerbacks do not have enough time or space to cover the ground when the route is short, and because they’re so vulnerable to short-yardage passes, it doesn’t take much for opposing receivers to exploit the defensive need to shorten the gap by faking a short route and getting open deep downfield.

This, more than anything else, is the reason UConn gives up 11.1 yards per passing ATTEMPT, a full yard more than any other team. And yet, this strategy has not changed since the beginning of last season, in which UConn also gave up more passing yards per game than any other team.

If the complete commitment to a strategy that has seen only colossal failure so far is an attempt to improve UConn’s very young defense through consistent repetition, I understand the thinking there. In order for players to improve, they need experience figuring out how to get the better of their opponent. But so far, they aren’t even getting the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. When nothing works, players cannot learn how to beat their opponent. In other words, the young players aren’t even getting anything out of this. They’re just losing over and over to nobody’s benefit.

Yes, the defense is young. Yes, the defense is inexperienced. Yes, the team is rebuilding from scratch. But the team isn’t this young, this inexperienced, this bad. Why is the defense playing worse than any other defense in the entire country? And what benefits are the young prospects seeing from continuing strategies that haven’t provided any success yet? If this is the only experience young players get, the only thing they’ll be when they’re seniors is experienced at losing.

Hotness of take: Okay, I got pretty melodramatic at the end, but it’s hard not to be frustrated by an unchanging strategy when that strategy clearly isn’t working. Changing things up certainly wouldn’t hurt, if only because it’s nearly impossible for UConn to be any worse on defense.

But the players are putting in the effort and they aren’t seeing any results yet, even at an individual level, where it doesn’t seem any of last year’s defensive regulars have noticeably improved—even the better players in the group. That’s on the coaching. And just because we don’t know where blame can be fairly assigned doesn’t mean we don’t know what’s going wrong. This take rates as not hot at all. This is a cold take. Something’s not right with the coaching.