Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Appetizers (and a bowl game) on the line at Cincinnati this weekend

So UConn will have a shot at a bowl game after all. Big test awaiting at Cincinnati, but it's clear the Huskies can compete with anyone in the conference. A few notes from today:
  • Pasqualoni said there's "no need to muddy the water at all" with regard to talking about what's at stake this week. Everyone already knows. The focus is where it should be, on the task at hand.
  • We've finally gotten to see exactly what Pasqualoni and George DeLeone had in mind with this two quarterback system. It forced opposing defenses to prepare for two completely different offenses, depending on who's under center. And it changes mid-series. They have to prepare for the McCummings run package, and they have to prepare for the McEntee pro sets. It was run efficiently against Rutgers. DeLeone said it's not necessarily that the players are understanding the system better, but the coaches realize what their players do best. "Every week McCummings is getting a bigger part of the game plan, and it's helped us run the ball tremendously and taken a lot of pressure off Johnny," DeLeone said. "I don't think the players have ever been a problem. It's us finally finding, it took us this long, finding what we do best and finding what we can win with at this level. We're starting to get into a groove of what we think we can do. If you listen to post-game reaction from these coaches, and listen to what they're saying during the week, defenses are struggling with it. They have a lot to prepare for, and it's gven us a little bit of an edge. They have a wide scope of plays they have to defend."
  • UConn hasn't won consecutive games all season, and its never won at Nippert Stadium. Cincinnati, even without Zach Collaros, showed it still has a dangerous offense led by Isaiah Pead, and a stout defense that's only once allowed more than 24 points to an opponent (a 37-34 win over USF).
  • A quick bowl prediction scenario: If UConn beats Cincinnati, it clinches Louisville's spot in the BCS bowl (likely Orange). Since the Champs Sports Bowl would be nuts not to take Notre Dame, West Virginia would likely wind up in Charlotte. Rutgers would then be snatched up for the Yankee Stadium bowl. The Liberty Bowl, by virtue of having no SEC-eligible team, would choose between Pittsburgh and UConn, and would go with Pitt. The Huskies would be left for the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Pete, and it would enjoy a complementary order of potato skins from the title sponsor and a Conference USA opponent.
  • Of course, if Syracuse knocks off Pittsburgh, UConn may wind up at the Liberty Bowl over the Orange. And should USF upset West Virginia, I think the Mountaineers still wind up in Charlotte, with UConn at the Liberty Bowl and South Florida staying home in St. Pete. In those scenarios, I'm betting the Huskies are more attractive to the folks in Memphis than Syracuse and USF simply by virtue of a better Big East record.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

McCombs wants leadership role

Lyle McCombs spent a good portion of preseason training camp dealing with questions about whether his body could withstand a season’s worth of pounding.

He understood it came with the territory of being a tailback listed as 5-foot-8 and a very generous 172 pounds.

“Soaking wet,” says McCombs, who is probably an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter.

Those queries ended rather quickly. McCombs not only proved he could handle a full workload and bounce up from every big tackle, but remain productive as the carries mounted.

Last week, McCombs became the second freshman and 14th runner to top 1,000 yards in a season. He also leads the Big East in rushing yardage (1,014) and carries (234) heading into the Huskies penultimate regular season game with Rutgers on Saturday at Rentschler Field (noon, ESPN2).

“A thousand yards means everything,” McCombs said Tuesday. “That’s what a running back wants to see, as far as numbers go, is 100-yard games and 1,000-yard seasons. That’s usually the goal, and I’m happy I achieved that, especially as a freshman. But we need more wins.”

Back in training camp, McCombs was expected to share the running duties with senior D.J. Shoemate, a converted fullback with the ideal frame in a UConn version of the thunder and lightning attack.

Injuries ended Shoemate’s season after one game, and McCombs was so far ahead of the Huskies’ other tailbacks that none has received more the two carries in a game since backup Jonathan Jean-Louis had five against Fordham in the season-opener.

McCombs has topped 100 yards in six of 10 games, his most impressive days in wins over South Florida (32 carries, 130 yards) and Syracuse (24-152, one touchdown).

His 10 carries and 33 yards against Louisville last week was a season low, partly because the Huskies were forced to change the game plan when they fell behind by 14 points in the first quarter.

Otherwise, McCombs has endeared himself to the UConn coaching staff with his quickness, toughness and understanding of the offense.

“He does other things, well, He can catch the ball well, he’s very good in protection and knows who to block, what the protections are,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “This has been a real god first year for Lyle. He has a chance to improve on this, and we’re going to need him to. He just has to keep going.”

Looking ahead, McCombs knows he needs to add weight and get stronger in the weight room. While he excels at making would-be tacklers miss, he rarely breaks a tackle and is often down on the initial hit.

McCombs would also like to take on more of a leadership role.

“I think I need to be more vocal,” McCombs said. “I’m a young guy and taking sort of an unexpected role. So I’m out here trying to do my job. But I need to do more than that with the role I play in the offense. That’s more of a vocal leadership.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

No title defense for UConn

Yeesh. Just not a heck of a lot to say after a loss like that. But, here goes...
  • Johnny McEntee had big problems throwing the ball again (18-for-43, 253 yards, one interception), but to be fair he wasn't helped by his receivers. We counted at least 10 drops, and the number may well have been higher. Of course, McEntee's penchant for badly overthrowing open receivers didn't help matters.
  • It would have been quite a fun final two weeks had the Huskies won this one. Five teams are tied with two losses, thanks to Rutgers knocking off Cincinnati, and the Big East is anyone's to win. Now, UConn will be unable to defend its title and may well wind up home for the holidays for the first time since 2006.
  • I don't think UConn changes anything on offense, but it's clear this team needs some major improvements in quarterback play if it wants any chance of being competitive next season. McEntee, at least the way he's played this season, isn't the answer. McCummings, as we saw Saturday, isn't an accurate passer. Nebrich apparently isn't ready, which says a lot considering what we've seen from others at the position. Could Casey Cochrane be a true freshman starter?
  • Not sure why UConn didn't elect to kick the field goal earlier (Teggart's 37-yarder came with 13 seconds left and after the Huskies faced 2nd-and-15 and 3rd-and-20). Pasqualoni was asked about it after the game, and said he didn't think about kicking earlier. Not sure if he misunderstood the question, but his reasoning doesn't make sense. In fact, he talks like kicking the field goal earlier was the better option. "Not at that point," he said. "We felt like with 55 seconds to go, we had the time out, we would have liked to get the ball into the end zone and gone for the on-sides kick. We needed a couple of plays. You're on-siding from the 30, so it's difficult if you only have one play. At the end of the day it's one play, you've got to get it launched into the end zone, and that's a hard thing to do from 60 yards out. We were just trying to come up with enough time to run two or three plays. That was it."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Call of Duty, New Haven football and yogurt. A little Louisville, too.

Seems like ages since UConn last played a game. Bye weeks can be weird like that. A few quick notes from today's media session...
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson will be a game-time decision for Saturday, according to coach Pasqualoni. He's not on the depth chart, so my instincts say he's unlikely to play, and if he does he won't be starting.

  • It's nearly impossible to get a hard copy of a team media guide these days. Printing costs don't make sense given everyone can just access it online. But Louisville not only has printed out his media guide, it's a bound, hard-cover edition that looks like it belongs on Regis Philbin's coffee table. It's a coffee table book about Louisville football.

  • Louisville, at 3-2 in the Big East, is a part of the log jam of team's with two losses. But the Cardinals squandered a chance to elevate themselves with a loss to Pitt last week, an opportunity coach Charlie Strong partly attributed to "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3". Had Louisville spent a little less time gaming, it might not be in this mess. Here's the story link. It's a stretch, and a pretty weak argument. I'm sure Pitt, and every other school in the county, has plenty of guys gaming, too. Maybe this week, should they lose, Strong will blame the distraction he caused with this story, which has gained national attention.

  • The bye week provides time to rest and heal, and since UConn played a Wednesday night game just before Halloween, it will have played only two games over a 35-day stretch when it takes the field Saturday. Louisville, on the other hand, had a bye on Sept. 24 and will be playing its eighth game in eight weeks.

  • Mike Osiecki was able to take advantage of the bye week to see his brother, Ryan, play quarterback for the University of New Haven in its final regular season game at St. Anselm in New Hampshire. Ryan Osiecki has thrown of 2,694 yards and 30 touchdowns for a New Haven (10-1) offense averaging 43 points per game. The Chargers are ranked second in their region, and have a first-round bye in the Division II playoffs that begin this week. They'll play a home game on Nov. 26 against the Kutztown-Concord winner. Kutztown, by the way, is led by a tailback on the verge of 1,000 yards this season. His name is Robbie Frey. UConn fans might remember him.

  • Speaking of New Haven, offensive coordinator George DeLeone was back in his hometown over the weekend to see a couple of high school football games. Obviously, he had to get some pizza. Pepe's or Sally's? Nope. DeLeone knows the best pies are made at Modern Apizza. Smart man.

  • Pasqualoni not only played for Joe Paterno at Penn State, he knows Jerry Sandusky fairly well. Sandusky was Pasqualoni's linebackers coach there in the late 60s and early 70s. Pasqualoni was as shocked and disgusted by the story as anyone else."For everbody, it's been difficult," he said. "For me, there's a couple sides to it. I feel, as I'm sure all Penn State alums do, very bad about it. I got in this business of coaching to be a college coach and an educator. I was an elementary school teacher for seven years. My core values and ideals, philosophical approach to my career is as a teacher. Even in the NFL, I saw myself as a teacher. I was just teaching older guys. Penn State is a great institution. The board of trustees are special people. They know what's good for the institution, and they did what they feel is the best thing to do for Penn State. Penn State is much more than a football school. There's much more to it than just that. It's been pretty difficult."

  • Trevardo Williams isn't a big fan of the training table food at UConn. When he's there, he'll usually load up a salad bowl full of yogurt. "I eat about a pound of yogurt a week," he said. "And I still maintain my weight (he's listed at 231 pounds)." Rather surprised, I had to ask how he could eat so much yogurt and not lose weight. "I eat other things, too," he smiled. "It's not an all-yogurt diet." Ah. Of course. The lesson, as usual? I'm not all that bright.

  • Williams says he works year-round on his technique, which, now three years into his UConn career, is finally paying big dividends. His speed certainly helps, too. Williams said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds not long ago. A few years back, the 100-yard dash at the spring high school track State Open, featured Williams, Marcus Campbell and a kid from Hillhouse named Terrell Wilks. Williams, only a junior, ran a 10.74, but finished third. Wilks, who went on to become an All-American sprinter at Florida, won it with a 10.42. "I haven't been timed in a 100 since high school," Williams said. "But I think I could still run a 10.7."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Ugly? Yes. UConn will take it.

If there was an uglier first half in the history of college football, this one rivaled it for sure. But it was a rather well-played, exciting second half. Here's a few postgame notes.
  • Paul Pasqualoni credited the players and coaches for remaining cool at halftime and devising a plan for the second half. A lesser group may have fallen apart after five turnovers and generally looking like it was the first time they had every played the game of football.
  • There were some boos raining down late in the first half after two McEntee throws went way out of bounds, and he was sacked and lost a fumble on the next play. The players heard them, too. "I understand why," center Moe Petrus said. "But it would be better if they stuck with us through thick and thin." Nicely said.
  • Using McCummings more was a big part of the Huskies halftime adjustment. McEntee simply wasn't getting it done, though he was better in his limited snaps in the second half. UConn has been a better second-half team, anyway. "I don't know what it is," Pasqualoni said. "Maybe they just get settled down, maybe they have a better picture of what they're doing before they go back out." The McCummings change up was as effective as its been all season, and showed the vision of what Pasqualoni and George DeLeone saw with the two QB rotation.
  • It certainly helped UConn's confidence that as bad as they were, the game was tied 7-7 at halftime. Syracuse certainly did itself no favors, scoring zero points off the five turnovers.
  • The team presented game balls to Pasqualoni and DeLeone for beating their longtime employer. Luckily, there won't be any more questions about Pasqualoni coaching against Syracuse. Until next year, at least. Can't wait for the UConn-Maryland Edsall week, too.
  • Nick Williams had his best day returning kicks, and was a huge help in terms of field position. Like it or not, this offense needs as much help from every phase it can get. Five trips to the red zone resulted in four touchdowns.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Pasqualoni prepares for a taste of Orange

A quick recap of the last 12 months: three winter snowstorms each dumping in excess of 24 inches, an earthquake, a hurricane, terrible flooding, an October blizzard, two separate power outages leaving most of the state in the dark for days, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria! This month?...I fully expect a 50-foot Stay-Puft marshmallow man to wreak havoc on downtown Hartford.

The quick news and notes of today's media session:
  • Apparently, the Syracuse media is hyping the "Pasqualoni against his old team" angle to death. It won't get as much play in Connecticut, as it understandably means more to Syracuse. Pasqualoni isn't exactly feeding into it either. Just be prepared for a parade of Randy Edsall takes on UConn stories next season.

  • The storm on Saturday is taking its toll on the coaches, many of whom have moved their families to hotels simply to keep them warm and fed. It's added stress to a stressful job.

  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson is not on the depth chart, and it seems unlikely he'll be ready this week. We're coming up on six weeks since he injured his knee. He didn't have surgery, at least one that was made public, so you'd think he's getting close to a return. Pasqualoni said he'll be doing more work at practice this week, and he's anxious to see how he looks.

  • In the four games Wreh-Wilson has missed, opposing quarterbacks have topped 400 yards passing three times. Pitt's Tino Sunseri, who isn't exactly drawing comparisons with Dan Marino, is probably the last Big East quarterback expected to put up that kind of yardage. Pasqualoni admits the team misses Wreh-Wilson, and that the team was forced to shuffle a safety (Byron Jones) to corner, and said the reorganization has slowed the defensive development.

  • The Big East announced it will extend invitations to both football-only and all-sports members today to replenish following the recent raids. But, commissioner John Marinatto would not identify the teams. Not a good sign, there. Means he's not sure all of them will accept. For the conference's sake, better pray Boise State is one that will accept.

  • Jory Johnson said the defense is working hard to improve on the bubble screens and short passes that have destroyed UConn of late. "Those short plays have turned into 40 and 50 yard gains, and that's the most frustrating thing," Johnson said. "The secondary hasn't been giving up a lot of chunk throws or deep, down-field shots. We just haven't been good as a defense. That's unacceptable. All we have to do (on those plays) is run to the ball and get them on the ground."

  • Johnny McEntee's struggle to spark the passing game hasn't put his job in jeopardy. He'll start again Saturday. A lot of that, I suspect, is that changing to Scott McCummings would mean the whole offense would have to be overhauled. McEntee is running a pro-style base set, allowing the fullbacks and tight ends to be used as targets. McCummings excels in run packages, but his accuracy and consistency as a passer -- from what we saw during preseason training camp -- aren't his strengths at this point.

  • As for Michael Nebrich? Pasqualoni says he's getting plenty or reps in practice, and that he can fill in to run the plays designed for either McEntee or McCummings. "His preparation hasn't changed since day one, other than we've stayed with Johnny or we've put Scotty in the game," Pasqualoni said. "Mike can go in the game at any time, for Johnny or Scott. Mike's repping everything. He's doing a good job. We're not in any different mindset or approach with Mike. He's working hard." Fact is, he's not being used, and there's no real reason as to why other than the coaches feel he's third-best. Hard to believe. At some point this season, Nebrich has to get more of a chance to play.