Sunday, October 25, 2015

Diaco's answers, UConn's performance not up to par

Somehow any recollections of last year's 41-0 shellacking at the hands of Cincinnati have been erased from my memory banks. I do, however, remember what transpired the last time UConn made its way to Nippert Stadium and what I witnessed yesterday was worse.

At least when the Huskies were being dominated in a 41-16 loss back in 2013 you had to figure that better days were ahead with a new coach set to arrive in the not too distant future. However, going into his 20th game as UConn's head coach I think it is fair to expect more than what we saw from Bob Diaco's team on Saturday.

After an impressive opening drive when Bryant Shirreffs used his legs to engineer a 9-play, 58-yard scoring drive, the offense barely made the Bearcats sweat. UConn scored six points the rest of the way. Three of them came after a bad snap on a Cincinnati punt gave the Huskies a first down at the Cincinnati 10 but a holding penalty pretty much the hopes of turning the Bearcats' miscue into seven points.

UConn had to settle for three points after driving inside the Cincinnati 10 in the fourth quarter and that was it.

Injuries in the secondary and a mediocre pass rush allowed the last three opponents to pass for more than 900 yards and complete nearly 65 percent of their passes. Yet, UConn didn't move past the 100 yard mark until midway through the fourth quarter. I only spoke to one UConn offensive player after the game and to his credit junior receiver Noel Thomas didn't use the driving rain as an excuse.

Diaco didn't have many answers after the game.

"We had some dropped balls, Bryant (Shirreffs) ran with it a lot, I'll have to look to see whether the reads were open," Diaco said.

If the offense failed to get going, what do you say about the defense? That impressive start to the season seems like a distant memory these days. In the last two games the Huskies have allowed 560 rushing yards. More than once a Cincinnati back burst through gaping holes and receivers had little trouble getting open. I realize that the offensive line and receiver positions are two areas where the Bearcats have plenty of experience.

Four Cincinnati wide receivers have more than 1,000 career receiving yards with another one closing fast on that milestone. As a point of reference, dating back to the 2008 season the Huskies have had five players go over the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards. Cincinnati's combination of an experienced line and game-tested players on the outside made life miserable.

By game's end the Bearcats had 612 yards of total offense and that includes two bad snaps resulting in 54 negative rushing yards. The Huskies should be better than that. Diaco turned to some old standbys calling UConn "a developing program" and "we are new." They are neither. A year ago I gave him a pass as he began the process of getting the program to where it needs to go but not any longer. I think the team has improved but it's hard to say that just how much after what I witnessed on Saturday.

Earlier in the season he said he does not believe in moral victories yet there he was spending most of his post-game interview session crowing about moral victories. Holding Cincinnati to just two field goals before a late touchdown in the second half is a nice accomplishment but the Bearcats were already in the milk the clock mode in the third quarter. There's no telling how many yards Cincinnati could have finished with if the played the second half with the same sense of urgency that they competed with in the first half. Even with that, Cincinnati headed into the fourth quarter with 493 yards of total offense so the attempt at spin control simply isn't cutting it. He spoke about the intangible improvements he saw from his team.  I am sure true leaders can emerge when a team gets dominated like the Huskies were so that has to be a positive. Sure, there were no silly pre-snap or post-possession penalties and the pass protection seemed to be decent with no obvious missed assignments.but I would hope that he can get the program to the point where this is more of the rule and not the exception. Speaking of exceptions, he didn't much care for my follow-up question of when there are going to be tangible improvements. Oh well, that is my job. I think it is great that the culture has improved, I really do but not sure that should be what you are hanging your hat on after a performance like that.

Cincinnati is a tough team to beat on the road so for UConn to return home on the losing end of things, that is understandable. However, the program should be at the point where the Huskies can go toe to toe with any team in its conference and that was simply not the case against the Bearcats.

Normally I would roll my sleeves up and really lay it out there but since I am en route to Orlando for the American Athletic Conference women's basketball media day so I won't be at Monday's football press conference. I don't have much respect for what I consider "hit and run" journalism which is when somebody lays the hammer down and then doesn't show up to deal with any backlash so I will keep many of my thoughts to myself - for the time being.

My hope is that these last two games will serve as a turning point for the program. It should be noted that UConn had nine defensive players who would play in the NFL on the 2009 squad that gave up 711 yards in a loss at Cincinnati. The following year the Huskies earned a share of the Big East title and played in the Fiesta Bowl. Perhaps by the time UConn returns to Cincinnati in two years many of the freshmen and sophomores who struggled to make plays will be the ones leading their team to victory and even a conference title. Five sophomores and two freshmen started on offense and five sophomores were starters on defense so there is a foundation here.

On Friday night the Huskies will be back home to host a pretty solid East Carolina team. I'm as anxious as anybody to see what it is going to look like on both sides of the ball. Yes, I am looking for tangible signs of improvement and something tells me that I am not the only one.


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