Here’s one for the statisticians; UConn and Virginia combined for just two punts on Saturday, only one by each team. While it’s unknown the last time that occurred in a college football game, the Huskies last punted just once in a 59-0 home win over Liberty in 2005 during head coach Randy Edsall’s first stint in Storrs. The lone punt on Saturday occurred on the opening drive of the afternoon and even then, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs led a 7-play, 33-yard drive into Virginia territory. On a short 4th and 3, Edsall chose to punt in plus territory at the 42-yard line, so it could be said that UConn was not ‘forced’ to punt the entire day, something the starting quarterback took notice of.
“If I’m not mistaken, I know we went for it on fourth down a couple of times, but we only punted one time,” Shirreffs said after the loss. “I don’t know if I have ever been a part of a team that did that.”
Despite all that, the Huskies compiled just 18-points in Charlottesville, as finishing drives, careless mistakes leading to turnovers and choosing not to take points in a number of situations kept the overall total lower than it should have been. The unit, however, displayed drastic progress, consistently putting drives together the entire afternoon, a credit to Shirreffs, who is now 23rd nationally in passing efficiency (165.1).
“Moving the ball doesn’t matter unless we put points on the board,” he said. “We need to finish in the red zone, something we did a good job of in the first game. We have to recognize when plays are there to be made and take advantage of them.”
After having a few days to review the film, Edsall recognized the good things that were done, but knows additional progress needs to be made.
“We moved the ball pretty well, but got stopped on downs inside plus territory,” Edsall said on today’s AAC Teleconference. “We got intercepted inside the red zone and then fumbled in the tight red zone, so we didn’t help ourselves. You cannot get the ball across the 50 and not take advantage of either scoring touchdowns, or if the game is in hand then you have a chance to kick a field goal and keep things there, but we were never able to do that.”
It is still only two games old, but the 2017 season has seen a eye-catching jump in performance offensively, maybe not in point production, but when it comes to moving the football, it’s night and day. The Huskies have finished no better than 108th in total offense since the Fiesta Bowl, spanning six seasons. Currently, UConn finds themselves in the upper half of college football on the year, 54th in the nation out of 128 FBS teams, but make no mistake, there is no satisfaction.
“There is obviously a bad taste in all of our mouths after missing some of those opportunities,” Shirreffs said. “If we want to be a good team, we have to make those. I put that on myself. I had two turnovers that were at critical points in the game and that led to a momentum swing that we couldn’t really recover from. We have to get back and get better, I have to get better. But I am proud of how we responded in the second half and I think overall, offensively, we did a lot of good things.”
Shirreffs finished the Huskies road opener 18-of-26 for 227 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had that costly interception in the red zone and fumble on the following series going in at the two-yard line. It was those two early mistakes that saw the Huskies get in a hole that they just couldn’t dig out of.
“There was some miscommunication [on the interception], Edsall said. “We could have put a little air under the ball because we had a guy there. It gets back to those technical things and fundamentals. We put a little air under the ball and that’s probably a touchdown. It’s one of those situations where when you feel it, throw it away, live another down. So these are the things that we just have to keep working on as a coach and hopefully they understand situations as a result. In certain situations, throwing the ball away could be a good thing. So those are some of the growing pains that we’re experiencing right now.”
The Huskies third-year starter at quarterback was not just effective through the air, but on the ground as well, running 14 times for 88 yards, moving the chains on several instances.
“That’s part of our offense,” Edsall said. “We call certain things and depending on what a defense will do, that’s what he [Shirreffs] did. So basically he was doing his job and executing what we needed to have done. Any time you go play an opponent, there’s certain things those opponents will do defensively where you might have certain guys carry the ball in the game so that you can be productive with what you want to do offensively and moving the ball. That’s something we went in with in the game plan in terms of knowing the quarterback might have to run the ball a bit more based on what they were doing defensively.”
Edsall was asked today about his overall assessment of the quarterback position, given that David Pindell has played three quarters and Shirreffs five through two games. He confirmed he has faith in both players, but given the UConn offense was not stalling or accumulating three-and-outs on Saturday, it is Shirreffs job to lose. That did not stop Edsall from commenting, however.
“I think we have two quarterbacks that can go out and execute the things we want to do, but if there’s somebody that is more ahead of the other guy, then he’s going to play” Edsall said. “If that guy is not being productive and not doing certain things, then you’re going to look to somebody else, that’s just the way that it’s supposed to be. Then you’re being true to your team.”
There are a few areas though that should see some shake-ups in terms of playing time, starting with the offensive line.
“I thought Ryan Van Demark did a pretty good job in there as a right tackle for a freshman,” Edsall noted from Charlottesville immediately after the loss. “There are a lot of guys that are young guys that are playing, but again that’s part of my responsibility as a head coach to figure out who the guys are that are the best guys and then we have to play them. We were going to have him [Van Demark] play every third series, and I would say that he’s earned his way to play more.”
Another position that yielded results, albeit late in the game, is the emergence of true freshman running back Kevin Mensah. He had the first six carries of his career Saturday, going for 49 yards, including breaking one for the Huskies last touchdown of the afternoon from 30-yards out.
“Kevin’s got some burst to him,” Edsall said this afternoon. “That’s something that we need. We have to try to find those guys that can make those plays. He’s going to get a few more reps moving forward. He’s a true freshman that got hurt a bit during preseason camp and he’s shown the ability that he has the most speed and biggest burst that we have on our football team. It’s just a matter of getting your personnel figured out and seeing what other defenses do. As we move forward now, we’ll get into more of a pattern of playing certain guys because we have a better idea of what guys can contribute on certain down and distance situations, as well as how many carries per game we’ll allot based on what defenses will do against us.”
Shirreffs was impressed with the performance of the young guys, including Van Demark and Mensah.
“They played really well,” he said. “To see those guys step up to the occasion and make a couple of big plays. I am really proud of the offensive linemen. They did a good job. I can only imagine, I have never played offensive line but a few years, especially in this part of our lives, that is a lot of maturity and a very big difference. There is a big difference between 22 and 23-year-olds and 18-year-olds. So hats off to them. I remember just being star struck when I was 18 and looking at some of the 22 and 23-year-olds. I thought they handled themselves really well and I am very proud of them.”
The Huskies will continue to develop and look to build off of Saturday’s performance, despite the end result.
“There were good things that happened out there, but as I told the team afterwards, we’re way too inconsistent,” Edsall said. “You can’t be that way. It starts in the meeting rooms, and it starts on practice fields. There are things we did better than the first game and there are things we didn’t do so well. So that’s the type of thing we’ve got to get corrected and now we’re going to be into it each and every week and get into a routine.”
Not one to lack confidence, junior wide receiver Hergy Mayala, who had a career-high two touchdown receptions, is always instilling confidence in his unit and this week was no exception.
“We just have to make sure that every play, we bring the same intensity,” Mayala said. “I know that we can move the ball and we can score whenever we want.”
The Huskies have proven the moving the ball aspect of that statement, they have six days to put together a plan to make the second part, just as true.
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