Friday, October 16, 2015

USF games seem to bring the best, worst out of UConn

There may not be a team on UConn's schedule with more history than the South Florida team visiting Rentschler Field on Saturday afternoon.

Ansonia's Arkeel Newsome is in the midst of an
impressive three-game run as a rusher, receiver
and kickoff return specialist for the Huskies
Who could forget the pure elation when Dave Teggart's 52-yard field goal with 17 seconds left was dead, solid perfect to give the Huskies the 19-16 victory, a share of the 2010 Big East title and a most improbable spot in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a day when UConn players, coaches and most of all fans could scream from the roof tops that they had arrived. The journey from solid I-AA team to BCS bowl participant was anything but an overnight one but the feeling was that this was just the start of something great.

Instead, a series of events transpired after the 48-20 loss to Oklahoma that sent the program reeling. Randy Edsall exited stage left to take the job at Maryland and the even though many of the decision makers were on the way out as well, the move was made to bring Paul Pasqualoni in to take the program to the next level. In retrospect it was the wrong man at the wrong time. Pasqualoni is one class act but also a decade removed from his last winning season as a collegiate head coach.

Fans and boosters scratched their heads at the hire and some did significantly more than that. The Huskies were actually in contention for bowl eligibility going into the 2011 season finale thanks to another win over USF but a loss to Cincinnati doomed the Huskies to a 5-7 record.

A 13-6 loss at USF in the 2012 season was the final nail in a four-game losing streak as the Huskies would once again finish with a losing season despite having five seniors taken between the third and sixth rounds in the 2013 NFL draft.

Foley Fatukasi is one of the rising stars on defense for UConn
It seems hard to fathom that USF's most recent trip to East Hartford came just two years ago and the Bulls took the field against a program in the state of disarray. UConn AD Warde Manuel had seen enough when a 41-12 loss at Buffalo, a school he used to work at, dropped the Huskies to 0-4. With an extra week to prepare for the start of the conference season, Manuel fired Pasqualoni and veteran assistant coach George DeLeone. Although the Huskies didn't give up an offensive touchdown in a 13-10 loss to USF, the feeling was UConn's program was years away from being relevant again even with the efforts of the energetic interim head coach T.J. Weist and a group of players who despite the chaos around them continued to fight the good fight. The Huskies would lose five more in a row to fall to 0-9 before ending the season with three wins a row.

Manuel aimed high and landed highly-respected Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

It took a while but Diaco's impact on the program is hard to miss. The Huskies are sitting at 3-3 after a convincing 40-13 win over Central Florida. UConn lost by three at Missouri and was within four points of Navy late in the second quarter, something that would likely never have occurred a season or even two seasons ago. Then the Huskies went on the road and was tied with BYU 10-10 heading into the fourth quarter before falling by 17. Suddenly there is a sense that this team has a chance to play in a bowl - not in five years but in December.

Quirky might be the most accurate word to describe Diaco, a man who perpetually acts like he is on his 12th cup of coffee. One of the most bizarre scenes in his brief tenure with the Huskies came in last year's 17-14 loss at USF. UConn attempted to pass the ball four times in the first quarter and the results were a holding call, an intentional grounding penalty and another call for an illegal block. The other attempted pass resulted in Chandler Whitmer being sacked. USF recovered to set up the game's first touchdown.

A few months earlier Diaco was surrounded by local media at American Athletic Conference media day and said he it gave him the best chance to win he would run the ball on every single play. Everybody within ear shot laughed except Diaco. Sure enough, playing in horrendous weather and not believing his team could drop back and pass without disastrous results, he had the Huskies run the ball on every single play in the second quarter. UConn ran the ball 13 straight times. Six of the 10 passes came in the final two drives as the Huskies' valiant rally fell short.
Luke Carrezola is one of four sophomores to start on defense for UConn
Last year Diaco pressed so many young players into action and this season there have been seven sophomore starting on offense, another four on defense. The true freshman receivers are coming on and so are so many of the second-year players. First-year starter Tommy Hopkins looks like a keeper at guard, cornerback Jamar Summer is one of the team's most talented players. Linebacker Junior Joseph and pass rushers Luke Carrezola and Cole Ormsby have tremendous potential while Foley Fatukasi has a chance to become an unblockable force on the defensive line. Arkeel Newsome has emerged into an impactful player as a runner, receiver and kickoff return and tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom don't get a ton of balls thrown their way but the ones that do come usually result in a big play. NC State transfer Bryant Shirreffs has the looks of being a difference maker at quarterback, something the Huskies have lacked in recent years.

Another bizarre move by Diaco was the creation of a trophy for the self-proclaimed "rivalry" with Central Florida, which had no clue about this so-called rivalry. Diaco was the butt of plenty of one-liners on social media and in various papers around the country. However, I have to admit that after seeing the UConn team celebrating with the trophy after the victory over UCF and posing for photos with it before leaving the field that there was a method to Diaco's madness. Say what you want about this trophy and rivalry but the players bought 100 percent in and really they are the only ones who really matter.

Is this team ready to come away with the three more victories needed to receive a bowl invitation? It's hard to say but this is not a question that was even being posed either last season or two years ago.

Stay tuned because there's a chance that this young head coach has a plan that has the program moving in the right direction. A win on Saturday would be a major step in Diaco's master plan.

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Anonymous Mongo said...

You do have to love this team. They don't back down and every game is interesting.

October 16, 2015 5:19 PM 

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