Saturday, September 10, 2016

Clock mismanagement comes back to haunt UConn this time

I truly thought nothing could top the images of Yale's game at Dartmouth several years ago when an official stood over the ball after a long completion by the Bulldogs should have set up a game-winning field goal or the call for a fake punt by the Bulldogs on 4th and 22 against rival Harvard.

However, it is possible that what I witnessed in the fourth quarter here in Annapolis, Maryland tops the "I can't believe what I just saw" list of my time covering college football games.

There were some remarkable performances by UConn players beginning with Bryant Shirreffs setting a UConn single-game completion percentage record by going 23 for 26. The 88.5 percent mark tops the previous standard of 82.9 by Dan Orlovsky against Navy in 2002. Noel Thomas had a career-high 11 receptions which it tied for the eighth best mark in program history. Luke Carrezola had a career-high three tackles for loss (the most for a UConn player since Graham Stewart's 3 1/2 against Tulane last year) while Matt Walsh finished with career-high 12 tackles. Still, it is impossible to write about Navy's 28-24 victory without focusing on some curious coaching decisions.

I realize that Bob Diaco is about playing the percentages and if you like, he often coaches not to lose but calling for a Ron Johnson run on 3rd and 7 from the UConn 8 with just over 5 minutes to play is not a play call that is going to be well received by many people. Predictably, Johnson was stopped well short of the first down and with UConn punting against the win, the result was a line drive punt by Justin Wain and a 26-yard return by Calvin Cass to set up what proved to be the winning score.

I asked him about the decision to run the ball there when a pass play would have given the Huskies more of an opportunity to pick up the first down.

"I don't have a great recollection of that last play selection, I was trying to get the first down and calling plays to get the first down," Diaco said.

You could even put on the second-guessing hat earlier in the game. Navy's triple option offense is going to move the ball so if you give the Midshipmen the ball at their own 25 or 45, is it that much of a difference? UConn had a 4th and 4 at the Navy 45 on the first drive of the game and punted. On the second possession the Huskies were faced with a 4th and 5 on the 41 and punted. Both times after Navy got the ball, it drove the field for touchdowns to go up 14-0.

That was merely the opening act.

With Navy playing the dreaded prevent defense (why do I have that quote flashing in my head that the only thing the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning), Shirreffs might have engineered his best drive as a Husky. He ran when it was right to do so and ran three times for 20 yards. However, he also stood tall in the pocket and connected with five different receivers to give the Huskies the ball at the Navy 1 with 17 seconds to play.

Here's where things got a little chaotic.

UConn had a timeout remaining meaning it could run or throw the ball with 17 seconds to play. Instead, the play clock was about to expire so the Huskies burned that last timeout when it would have been a more logical move to spike the ball since it was second down. I am sure Diaco's mind was scrambled with everything that transpired and the 30 or so minutes that elapsed before he made it into the interview room wasn't enough time for him to clear his head but twice he mentioned it was third down. It is a mistake the staff can't make because there's a huge difference between spiking the ball on second down and on third down. Then came the actual play call. At that point Ron Johnson had 33 yards and nine carries while Arkeel Newsome had 13 yards on nine rushing attempts. Shirreffs was making plays with his feet and arm and yet the ball was given to Johnson. The seconds ticked away as the UConn players desperately attempted to get to the line of scrimmage to run the second play called but time expired before the Huskies could snap the ball.

Just over a week after calling a timeout too quickly to give Maine some time on the clock to return a kickoff after Bobby Puyol's game-winning field goal and also taking a delay of game penalty at the end of the first half rather than give Puyol a shot at a long field goal or try to heave into the end zone, the clock mismanagement issues returned.

Diaco normally begins his postgame press conferences following a script of heaping praise on the players and coaches from the other team but this time he heard the clock management question and was ready with his response.

"To address the final moments of the game without talking about the other things that created that opportunity to have final moment," Diaco said. "The play to Hergy (Mayala), we didn't know
if it was complete, where, on the 1, on the half (yard line), incomplete so the clock is running down.

"We were not going to get the play off so I burned the timeout, third and goal from the 1, third and goal from the 1/2 yard line... We can't be third and goal from the 5 1/2, third and goal from the 6, whether it (the play clock) should have been reset. As soon as that (the timeout) happened, they review the play.

"Should the ball have been thrown on the third down to guarantee the fourth down final play? At that moment there are 17 seconds, how did 17 seconds run off the clock?

"We called two plays, we were going to run two plays but they (Navy's defensive players) wouldn't let everybody off the ground and that is kudos to them. I am not knocking them, we don't make
excuses. I am not making any excuses, I take full accountability. I am just describing the final seconds because I know you are going to ask because I know you should and I know UConn Nation wants to know as they should. Without even reviewing, I am just recapping in my mind what I lived in that moment. I am not sure

"Throw the ball, we are on the half yard line, throw the ball and it is picked, throw the ball and it is batted, why did you throw it? What are you doing? You idiot. I got all that (the criticism) and I am good on that."

The unfortunate part is that there are so many positives that could have been taken out of this game and some of them just may be used to aid the team's development. UConn was down 21-0 to Navy, yes the Navy team that sucks the life out opposing defenses with time-consuming drives. I did not see any scenario where the Huskies would have come back to take the lead but that is exactly what happened with the aid of a well executed fake field goal, timely third down conversions and a huge defensive play when Mikal Myers forced a fumble which Jamar Summers returned 86 yards for a score.

Obviously there is plenty more to get to in the coming days so stay tuned but as was the case when a coaching decision probably cost Yale the chance to beat Harvard back in 2009, you really have to feel for the players who despite some miscues put themselves in position for what would have been a huge victory.

"I have never really felt anything like that before," said senior receiver Noel Thomas, who had a career-high 11 catches. "We fought back at the end like we always do in practice, we work 2-minute drill, we fought hard and we make the play at the end."


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