The numbers alone portray the story and it was ugly defensively for UConn on Friday night. Seventy points. Seventy! Seven. Zero. It was a record given up by a Huskies defense since well, ever. They surrendered more than 700 yards to Memphis, 711 to be exact, not quite a record, but close. Tigers QB Riley Ferguson put on a show, throwing for 431 yards and an AAC-record tying 7 touchdowns. WR Anthony Miller? How about 15 catches for 224 yards and 4 touchdowns. Heading in, Miller had 292 yards and just 3 touchdowns through four games, a third of the season.
“That was embarrassing in the second half, embarrassing,” head coach Randy Edsall said matter-of-factly following the loss. Truer words were never spoken.
The game started out well for UConn, however, as running back Arkeel Newsome took his first carry, the third play from scrimmage, 64-yards to the house. The Huskies scored 14 points in the first quarter, the most since registering the same total in a 2013 win over Rutgers under interim head coach TJ Weist. After tight end Alec Bloom scored on a 30-yard pass from Shirreffs with 7:13 left in the second quarter, it was all tied up at twenty-one apiece. It stayed that way until 1:47 left in the half and that’s when things began to unravel.
After Ferguson hit Miller for his third TD in the first 30-minutes from 40-yards out, UConn running back Kevin Mensah fumbled the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive and the Tigers scored again, just four plays later. In the blink of an eye it went from 21-21 to 35-21. UConn would add a field goal to end the half, as Memphis held a 35-24 lead at the break. Four unanswered touchdowns later, a 42-3 scoring run and it was 63-24 early in the fourth and the word embarrassing isn’t strong enough.
“We’re not a mentally tough enough team,” Edsall said. “We had the game there 21-21; throw a pick, touchdown, fumble the ball, touchdown, now we’re down. We’re not mentally tough enough. We’ve had spurts in every game, but some of the issues we had in previous games showed up again. I think they were 8-of-12 on 3rd downs in the first half. We have guys in certain positions and we don’t make plays. We have a chance to make a play and we don’t make it. We are very fragile when things don’t go well and then we have issues. The second half, we had guys there, but we didn’t tackle, we didn’t block guys, we didn’t do anything well there in the second half.”
Defensive struggles were to be expected when transitioning to a new scheme. It’s well chronicled how with the coaching change, the Huskies moved from a 3-4 look, to a 3-3-5 defense under new coordinator Billy Crocker. It hasn’t worked and that’s putting it mildly. Don’t expect things to change overnight, however.
“We decided to come in here and install a defense that we think is going to be good for us as we put this program together,” Edsall said. “The defense [defensive players] that we inherited were not built for this defense. If you look, we don’t really have enough lineman to play a four-man front. It’s not the scheme, it’s we need to get players in to play the scheme that we want to play because of the teams we’ll be matched up against year-in and year-out. Right now it’s difficult because we don’t have the personnel to play this.”
“We don’t have the personnel to play a 4-3 either,” he continued. “This is a big job that we’ve undertaken to make better, pure and simple. It isn’t going to happen overnight, it just isn’t. I wished it could, but we need to go recruit guys that can play this, but we don’t have people to play a 4-3 scheme. If you look at our depth, we don’t have four down linemen that can play and have back-ups. So what we’re trying to do is put together the best thing that we can to give us a chance to win. Right now, it’s not real pretty, but this is who we have, this is what we are and we’re just going to continue to work to get better.”
Players being present or not, it’s the coaches job to put the athletes in the best position to be successful and defensively, it’s just not getting done to this point, specifically against the pass. Execution by the players on the field will always be the determining factor of success, but were there adjustments, specifically against Anthony Miller on Friday night? Throughout the first half it seemed like he was running against man coverage en route to a 12-catch, 157-yard, 3-touchdown half.
Looking back at the tape will tell if a safety was ever moved over to give some help over the top in the second half to help limit his touches. Regardless, if the UConn offense can go from near the bottom of most offensive categories since the start of the decade and have the turnaround to where they are now a real threat to score every time they have the ball in just five games under new OC Rhett Lashlee, surely something can be done to prevent record-setting performances by opposing QB’s week-in and week-out.
“Some of those things you need to do in the offseason, but I don’t know, maybe I’m from a different era, I have no idea, but to me, it’s what you have right in here,” Edsall said pointing to his heart. “If you sign up to do something, you give it everything that you’ve got for as long as you can. I don’t know any other way to put it, either you have it in there or you don’t.”
Just as head coach Randy Edsall opened his press conference, truer words apply here as well, as the Huskies begin to look ahead to next weekend in Philadelphia. .
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