Sunday, September 18, 2016

UConn football: Groundhog Day revisited

Jamar Summers comes up with another huge play
UConn football fans have earned criticism for being a late arriving crew. Well, with the way the first three games of the season have played out, I couldn't blame anybody if they arrived at Rentschler Field for Saturday's game against Syracuse with about 20 seconds on the clock.

If UConn coach Bob Diaco had called the timeout at the proper time in the season opener against Maine, each of the Huskies' first three games would have been decided on the game's final play. It seems like it was pulled right out of the script from the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day with the same events happening time after time or simply maybe it is theater of the absurd.

I did some checking and the only other FBS team that even comes close to accomplishing that feat this year is BYU as the Cougars won Arizona on a field goal with 4 seconds to play, lost to Utah when Taysom Hill's two-point conversion run was stopped with 18 seconds remaining and if BYU had recovered the onsides kick against UCLA after Hill's TD pass with 37 seconds remaining pulled the Cougars within three points, perhaps BYU could have approached the last play insanity that UConn and its fan base have experienced this season.

My thoughts and observations from yesterday's 13-10 game.

First, it was an absolute offensive disaster on both sides of the ball. UConn's first 10 drives (counting the one-play drive at the end of the first half) featured a field goal, six punts, an interception and fumble. Virginia marched 86 and 90 yards on its second and third offensive possessions to take a 10-0 lead. The next seven drives netted a combined total of 85 yards on 31 plays.

Things got so bad that Dan Orlovsky, one of the most prominent alums in UConn football history, called out his alma mater at halftime.

Does Uconn football know it's 2016 and teams score 30+ a game?!?!?!?
I feel like the O hasn't been good there in a decade😡

There are so many numbers that I could throw out there to attempt to quantify UConn's offensive ineptitude in the first three quarters but how about this one - in first quarters this season UConn has run nine plays on the plus side of the 50 and netted a total of five yards while opponents have 95 yards on 14 plays in UConn territory.

UConn's ability to make things happen in the fourth quarter salvaged another victory but this is not a script that will continue to be successful with tougher opponents coming up.

The news wasn't all negative. First, UConn picked up a win. Yes, it was a downright ugly victory but considering that the Huskies are coming off five straight losing seasons (something that has only happened two other times in program history since 1938) so there's no turning your nose up as any sort of victory.

Jamar Summers continues to prove to have exception instincts when it comes to breaking on a pass. His interception, coming the next play after Arkeel Newsome's fumble, was the biggest play of  the game. While I have no way of knowing how the would have played out if Virginia didn't turn the ball over there, it definitely swung the momentum back to UConn.

Trey Rutherford deserves a ton of credit. When starting left guard Tommy Hopkins was injured in the Maine game, I thought Rutherford might move back to guard to replace him since he was good enough to start at guard in the St. Petersburg Bowl. He remained at tackle in the two practices I attended last week and it wasn't until Wednesday when I noticed that he was working at guard as Brendan Vechery donned a red (no contact) shirt in that practice indicating that he was injured. Vechery did snap for the second-team offense but with the red shirt, he did not engage in any duties except snapping the ball. With the injuries on the interior of the line, true freshman Nino Leone was seeing some time with the second-team offensive line.

"A little bit of attrition at the guts of our line," Diaco said when I asked him about Rutherford after the game. "He (Vechery) was cleared for participation today but he really wasn't going to be 100 percent functional so in an emergency situation he would have been used. Kudos to Trey Rutherford, I look forward to watching his play, he was the next plan there as you work through Hop, Vech, (Dan) Oak, three interior offensive linemen who have not been available.

"He is a very aggressive player, he is big, strong and athletic and fast and development is on the (rise). The best thing to do to get ready is to play in the games. You can't get to be a veteran, mature functional football player without playing  in games so it was a grwt oportunity for him today."

 I liked what I saw from juniors Foley Fatukasi and Junior Joseph. Yes, they teamed up on a stop on fourth down in the fourth quarter and that play generated quite the buzz but at first glance I thought this was the best overall game of the season for both of them.

Also, I think getting the ball into sophomore receiver Hergy Mayala's hands is a must. He was targeted as much as anybody in the fourth quarter and his catch on the sideline looked impressive live but watching it on tape, impressive doesn't do it justice as he reached up with one hand so he could corral the ball and still got one of his feet in before heading out of bounds. While seeing Newsome rip off some runs is a good sign moving forward although he would like to have the fumble on the pitch back. It is troubling, however, that after catching 45 passes as a sophomore, Newsome has just two catches in the first three games.

Last but certainly not least, kicker Bobby Puyol continues to deliver and punter Justin Wain bounced back from a tough performance against Navy. I'll have more on Puyol in tomorrow's paper but he has made his last eight field goals and also had four touchbacks on four kickoffs.

On the other side, Andrew Brown and the rest of Virginia's front seven seemingly made a living in UConn's backfield. I didn't rewatch the entire game but on the play immediately preceding Newsome's 38-yard run, Richard Levy barely - and I do mean barely - touched Brown giving him an easy path to Newsome for one of his 3 1/2 tackles for a loss. Levy was also beaten on a sack by Brown on UConn's game-tying drive. Things seemed to get better as the same wore on but I have been extremely underwhelmed by the play of UConn's offensive line this season.

Bryant Shirreffs had an average game. He overthrew some passes and were times when he pulled the down and if not for four Virginia penalties on UConn's first two scoring drives, the Huskies likely would have been down 10-6 heading into their final drive of the game instead of the game being tied at 10. No penalty was bigger than the facemask call on Kirk Garner on a third-down incompletion in the end zone to Noel Thomas which would have likely forced UConn to try a field goal. I taped the game but Garner, who had man coverage on Brian Lemelle on the play, escaped from view when the penalty infraction took place so I can't speak to whether it was the right call.

Also, the secondary play will need to be much better with Syracuse coming to town as Eric Dungey ranks fifth in FBS with 91 completions. His two top receivers are West Virginia's Ervin Phillips (third nationally with 30 catches) and Amba Etta-Tawo (tied for fourth with 28 receptions). The 11 completions in the first quarter weren't as troubling to me as the 26-yarder on the final drive when the defense is designed to stop those throws.


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