Friday, September 27, 2013

Fixing third-down issues a major priority for UConn

Chandler Whitmer has been under duress with so many 3rd-and-long
plays in the last two games, losses to Maryland and Michigan.
A look back at the last two games and nothing jumped out at new more than the nightmarish performance by UConn's offense on third downs.

Things actually starting off in promising fashion against Maryland with the Huskies converting four times on their first six third downs. Since then the numbers are frighteningly horrendous with UConn 2 for 23 on third downs. Wait, it gets worse. During that span there have been just three plays with positive yards to go against 11 incomplete passes, six sacks and a would-be sack that turned into an intentional grounding call in the end zone. Over those 23 third-down play the Huskies have minus 46 yards of offense (if you could the intentional grounding penalty as a nine-yard loss).

When we met with UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni I asked him how the Huskies plan on fixing the issues and his answer was long enough that he actually apologized for the length of his response.

"You try to come down with down and distance and what you think your best chance to convert is and we work really hard at it," Pasqualoni said. "We are rehearsing, rehearsing and rehearsing and just didn’t play very well on third down last week. We have to go out and come out with the plan, make sure we’ve got the protection right, we get the coverages right and make sure the quarterbacks are seeing the right reads and the receivers are running the right routes. We are playing with a lot of young guys and I thought Peyton Manning had a great point in routes on the drill, what we call routes on air and how important that drill is. I think he called it the most important drill in practice and the point is that it is a drill when you go out and run your pass routes and there is no defense there, you just go out and run your pass routes so the quarterback goes back and his job is to get the ball out on time and the receivers’ job is to get the proper depth, get the right stems and get to the right landmark on the field because the quarterback has got to throw the ball before he gets to the landmark, the quarterback has to have 100 percent confidence that the receiver is going to be exactly where he needs to be because the run, the blitz and everything else is coming. Part of the issue with us is we have so many young players and so many first-year guys in the game that you have to work and work and work on that.

"The touchdown to (Spencer) Parker (one of the two successful third-down conversions) he was in exactly the right spot, it was well done and Chandler did a great job of getting the ball out. At any level that was done as well as I have seen done. You have to do that consistently and there are a lot of routes, we got one picked two weeks ago because we weren’t exactly where we needed to be. But if you are going to be a team that drops back and throws the ball, that is how you have to do it. It is a huge commitment to do it and you hope that you develop chemistry, players have confidence in each other, they are dependable and doing the right thing. That is a long answer but that is how you do it. I wish we could do it overnight; I really do because if we could do it overnight, I promise you we would do it."

There are a multitude of issues resulting in these third down struggles. First, is the inability to get into manageable third down plays. Over those 23 plays the average spot is 3rd and 8. The last five third-down plays against Michigan were 3rd-and-goal at the 11, 3rd-and-9, 3rd-and-12, 3rd-and-18 and 3rd-and-17. The first play resulted in a touchdown but that was followed by an incompletion, a pass for a 2-yard loss, an incompletion and a sack.

Play calling is a problem as there was only one designed running play and that resulted in a first down.

The absence of receiver Shakim Phillips and offensive tackle Kevin Friend have had the Huskies facing an uphill battle on offense. Pasqualoni was optimistic that Friend would play against Buffalo while Phillips has done some work at practice this week and will be a game-time decision.

Without Phillips against Michigan, the outside receiver opposite Geremy Davis was a freshman. I asked Pasqualoni how much that lack of experience changes the play calling when Phillips is forced to sit out.

"Well it certainly doesn’t make it any easier," Pasqualoni said. "We are trying to give them everything, we are trying give the team the best chance, we are trying to give the players the best chance to succeed, the team the best chance to win so we are going to do everything we have to do with those young players. Obviously we are probably not going to do as much with them as we would with Shak in there but at the same time they have to be able to handle the game plan we put together."

If there is a silver lining it is Buffalo ranks 87th in third-down defense and 116th in rushing defense (among 123 FBS programs) so perhaps the Huskies can get the nation's 122nd ranked rushing offense going. Of course it should be noted that Buffalo has faced Baylor (which leads all FBS teams in total offense) and Ohio State (which ranks 15th in total offense).

“We have to get better that is all we can do,” UConn junior running back Lyle McCombs said. “We have to keep working hard and hope the game flows the way it should for the games to come.”

The Huskies tried to address some of those issues by featuring bigger backs like Max DeLorenzo and Martin Hyppolite into the game plan against Michigan.

“We want to break some, we want to be why our offense is (successful) but it is tough,” DeLorenzo said. “Right now we are trying to move the ball and get our quarterback Chandler into some third and 3’s, 3rd and 4’s because that is a huge weight off of his shoulders. We are dying to make some plays, dying to turn this thing around.”


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