Column: Issues with the In-laws
In 13 years, I'm going to attend an exceptionally average backyard barbeque. The cookout will boast your typical burgers, dogs, soda and one guest a bit too proud of their fruit salad. I'll mill about, chitchat and at some point-as is certain for the typical married male- joke about my craggy old in-laws.
It's as predestined as having to compliment Mrs. Fruit Salad. Cracking one about new mom's meddling or dad's ever-flowing advice, who knows what the gag will be. But, I'm sure it will be a good one.
Now, before we leap freely into the future and being bound in so many ways, college of course calls for a time to live it up, to revel in the present. Time to enjoy the splendor of current company. Yet for passionate UConn fans whose college experience is dictated partially by the their teams, this sort of in-law feeling has already sort of settled in.
More specifically, it's come with rooting for the football team in this Paul Pasqualoni era. Think about it:
An elderly presence somehow taking away from potential, complete sporting happiness; periodic intrusions or ruining of enjoyable weekends; the inescapability of this authority due its relation to something you really love.
No, I'm not talking about Coach P. I'm talking about the struggling Husky offense at the direction of coordinator George DeLeone.
Now, let's first get some things straight. Coach DeLeone has forgotten more football than I currently know. He's seen more gridiron than I have anything iron. He'll also continue to coach offense as long as Coach Pasqualoni is at the helm.
But, after charting pre and post-snap information for every offensive play this season, it has grown alarmingly clear that there are some serious coaching issues. And with the most critical part of the Pasqualoni era descending upon Storrs in the coming weeks, they need to be addressed. It's time to talk about the in-laws.
Let's start with the play-call predictability.
Last Saturday against Buffalo, the UConn offense earned a total of 27 first downs. On 24 of those 27 occasions, the ball was handed off to Lyle McCombs or or kneeled down. The Bulls of course picked up on this trend and, as a result, allowed fewer than half of those plays to go for better than three yards. This tendency clearly hurt the Huskies and down the road can't happen, because against a quuality opponent could be fatal.
Then again, okay. It was just one game. Perhaps the game-plan last Saturday was run heavy because the coaches anticipated physically mauling the lesser Bulls. It clearly didn't happen but hey, bottom line is that they still won.
Well, here's the problem. This little coaches' crush on running the football doesn't pertain just to last Saturday. In fact, it hasn't been a one game affair- it's been a shameless season of love.
Here's the proof:
Tallying every snap where there was no situational force dictating a run or pass play call, the offensive coaching staff still significantly favored running the ball. These plays included every second down play with two to seven yards to gain, any third downs ranging from two to four yards to go and every regular first and ten play.
However, I did not take into consideration any snap that was a part of a drive intended to run out the clock or occurred in a "two-minute drill" Nor did I mark down those that took place in a series which began with a current score differential of more than 10 points. A competitive balance within the game should call for balanced play calling from an offense that doesn't have either a high-powered run or pass game.
Yet, of these 126 snaps, a hand-off was dialed in more than 61 percent of the time. Thus, in situations where the defense should have no tip as to what is coming, the Huskies have flashed their cards. Better than three out of every five of these plays were runs.
Furthermore, in both the games that UConn had a small or reachable lead in throughout-at Maryland and against Buffalo- DeLeone called exactly two runs for each pass called (The Huskies' biggest lead over Maryland was just 10 and Buffalo only ever trailed by more than that for less than five minutes). While the Blue and White did end each day with a win, there was a reason both opponents came back and Maryland nearly won.
This UConn offense tried to tuck their opposition into bed early instead of going for the knock-out punch. The teams you see around college football these days posting record final scoring margins aren't doing so with this mentality of three yards and a cloud of dust. They're polishing their passing games and more importantly, calling plays that have the greatest chance of gaining considerable yardage on every play.
DeLeone and company don't necessarily have to start spreading the field but they do have to adapt their run/pass ratio weekly to optimize production. Instead, when on their own volition, they run the ball more than 60 percent of the time, even when averaging a terrible 2.9 yards per carry.
That defies football logic.
Now going into Big East play, where currently more than half the conference boasts a top-50 run defense, (beginning with Rutgers who's no. 1 in the nation) this strategy can clearly ill-afford to carry on. For God's sake, Buffalo and UMass held the Huskies to 3.3 yards per rush. Yet even regardless of competition, this game plan cannot remain because of the recent development of offensive personnel.
Whether or not the playcalling allows it to shine through, this offensive group is undergoing an identity shift. No longer is the team's surefire best option to hand the ball off to Lyle McCombs on any given down. Last year with Jonny McEntee completing 50 percent of his passes and a decent offensive line up front, there was no doubt Uconn had to run lots. Watching the 2011 team throw felt at times like lighting a dumpster fire from the inside.
But this year's front five have struggled mightily, particularly along the interior. Their consistent missteps have prohibited McCombs from finding many holes. His average yards per carry has dropped in addition to yards per game. Graduated center Moe Petrus and tackle Mike Ryan have by far been the most sorely missed Huskies from a year ago.
In the other direction however, careful film study has revealed that quarterback Chandler Whitmer has made substantial week-to-week progress. Compared to his UMass performance, the guy is a new quarterback.
He is standing in the pocket against pressure and going through his progressions. He is making strong throws to the outside and spreading the ball around. He is also looking off safeties more often and gaining greater comfort with the offense.
Yet against an inferior defense last week, Whitmer was not allowed to throw the ball as often in the second half and put Buffalo away. Despite completing 68 percent of his throws, the redshirt sophomore was relayed just five passing plays to run over 15 snaps in the fourth quarter. As a result, Buffalo came back and had a shot to tie the game.
This represents a stubborn commitment to their offensive philosophy and as a result, blind eye to ongoing changes in personnel- the second sin of this offense. Pasqualoni himself declared after the Western Michigan loss that he hoped quarterback Chandler Whitmer would not throw that many passes (44) ever again this season. On face value, the statement makes sense given that the Huskies had to play catch up against the Broncos via the pass.
But the focus needs to be on finding the best week-to-week formula for beating opponents based on personnel and scheme matchups. Not on strictly following a school of thought born from the stone ages of football. The offensive coaching staff did this exactly last week and it nearly cost them.
The only alternate explanation to last week's absurd run/pass ratio is that the Huskies didn't want to show Rutgers more of their playbook. Except, we know this can't be true. In his press conference following the 37-0 win over UMass, Pasqualoni refused to consider any concerns that they had revealed too much to future opponents.
"Don't worry about plays. We could wallpaper this place with plays." he said.
He's probably right. Coach of all people would know. But therein lies the final issue. Even if they put all their plays on tape, it wouldn't be anything truly devastating. Think of it like a wardrobe malfunction with a wetsuit on underneath.
In my opinion, the scheme itself needs greater creativity to provide an advantage. Scott McCummings in the "Wildcat" package has averaged 2.5 yards per rush and needs to go. The passing game has to extend vertically more to take pressure off the running game and stray from current, harmful tendencies. It also needs to increase in variety from the typical flooding of one half of the field with three receiver routes preceded by pre-snap motion from the opposite side.
Finally, because there is not only one All-Big East team member in this offense, there is greater emphasis on the system to put the players in good position all alone. Instead, it's providing hardly any advantage and is being utilized in a way that limits potential points.
Now, this team has the guts, heart and determination to do what it needs to do. The 2012 version of UConn football is better overall than it was a year ago, but the result could unfortunately turn out to be similar. It's not a matter of talent, but system and mindset. There must be change.
Bottom line-in 13 years I hope I look back and realize I'm wrong. But the play of this team, starting Saturday against an undefeated Rutgers club, is entering a critical stage. And it is nojoking matter.
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