FILM REVIEW: Breaking Down the Huskies Defensive Performance From Thursday Night’s Season Opener

Thursday night the Huskies welcomed perhaps the most powerful offense in college football as UCF and McKenzie Milton lived up to the hype at The Rent, despite a brand new coaching staff and the loss of receiver Tre-Quan Smith. The Knights were not just able to put up 56-points, a consistent 14-points in each quarter, but they were also able to convert on 10-of-12 third and fourth downs, an issue that plagued Billy Crocker’s defense a season ago. Then there are the big plays, which helped extend the nation’s longest winning streak.

“We had 10 big plays against us for 338 yards,” head coach Randy Edsall said on Friday. “Big plays for us are plus-12 or more in the run game and plus-20 in the pass game. They had 4 runs for 133 yards and 6 passes for 205-yards, so ten plays for 338 yards.”

In total, UConn surrendered 652 yards; 356 through the air and 296 on the ground. Those numbers resemble the output of opposing offenses a year ago, but where there is hope, is this unit is young and some of those players had impressive moments on film.

Heading into the opener, the depth chart that the Huskies released was littered with ‘ORs’ and there was constant rotation among the defensive line and linebacker positions, specifically, throughout the opener. The secondary, however, was locked in for the entire night, other than true freshman Keyshawn Paul being pulled in favor of another true freshman, Ryan Carroll, in the third quarter. The entire participation list from the game against UCF was as follows based on the breakdown of film from the ESPN broadcast.

GAME PARTICIPATION: 

Secondary: Tyler Coyle (S), Omar Fortt (S) and Tahj Herring-Wilson (CB) played the entire game defensively. Where there was change was the corner spot opposite Herring, as Keyshawn Paul started and played the first 42-defensive snaps before being relieved by Ryan Carroll. Fortt and Herring-Wilson had very good nights, but all members of the secondary have an opportunity to improve next week. Carroll forced a fumble, but also surrendered a TD on UCF’s second drive of the 3rd quarter. Coyle, Fortt and Herring are cemented in their positions, but there will be a battle for the other starting cornerback role throughout the week.

Percentage of Snaps: Coyle (100%), Fortt (100%), Herring-Wilson (100%), Paul (59%), Carroll (41%)

Linebacker: There was quite a bit of rotation among the linebacker corps and the move to a four-man front really effected the amount of time that Darrian Beavers saw on the field (just 44% of the snaps). For all but one play on the night, the Huskies utilized just two traditional linebackers (not counting the Husky position). Eli Thomas and Santana Sterling started the game, but it was Thomas and true freshman Kevon Jones that saw the majority of the snaps against UCF. Jones finished second on the night with 9 tackles, including a TFL on a 3rd and short at midfield that led to UCF’s only punt with their first-team offense on the field and was impressive against the run throughout.

Percentage of Snaps: Thomas (58%), Jones (56%), Beavers (44%), Sterling (42%), Hahn (1% – one play when UConn showed a 3-3-5 formation)

Husky: Marshe Terry started at Husky (combo LB-S), but Ian Swenson ended up with the majority of the reps. Terry struggled early on, which you’ll see in some of the film breakdown and Swenson took advantage of the playing time, earning positive remarks from head coach Randy Edsall on Friday’s ‘day-after’ call. There were times when Swenson lined up in a traditional MLB position when UCF went trips, pulling the second level to either side of the formation, which saw Swenson’s effectiveness limited in those situations, particularly against the run, as his strong suit is not to go against offensive linemen and asking him to shed blocks. Overall, Swenson was much more decisive, particularly on RPO’s, which saw Terry be tentative at times, particularly when he came on a blitz, as you’ll see below.

Percentage of Snaps: Swenson (65%), Terry (35%)

Defensive End: Near the end of training camp, AJ Garson burst onto the scene with the one’s at defensive end and it was Garson who not only saw himself with the starting unit, but he and James Atkins saw the majority of reps at the position throughout the game. Two true freshmen were eased into reps, as both Jonathan Pace and Lwal Uguak earned time. There were only a few instances where the Huskies got a rush, but Milton’s quick decision-making limited the effectiveness a traditional pass rush would have. For the majority of the night, the only times Milton was chased from the pocket was when the Huskies brought extra guys, especially off the edge.

Percentage of Snaps: Atkins (59%), Garson (58%), Pace (41%), Uguak (39%)

Defensive Tackle: Edsall mentioned heading into the opener that he would likely play some of the older, more experienced players early on as the true freshmen took in the atmosphere and speed of the game. Just like at end, Kevin Murphy and redshirt freshman Caleb Thomas got the starts on the interior of the line, while true freshman Travis Jones and Miami (FL) transfer Ryan Fines rotated in. Travis Jones (No. 57) made an immediate impact as his first play in college, he was able to shed his block and bring down Adrian Killins:

Percentage of Snaps: Murphy (59%), Thomas (59%), Jones (39%), Fines (39%), Uguak (1% – one play was the lone DT in the 3-3-5 formation)

With the personnel established, it’s time to review some film.

1ST DRIVE:

UCF came out and really spread out the defense sideline-to-sideline. It looked early as if Crocker was inviting UCF to run the ball, rather than putting added pressure on the young Huskies secondary. UConn showed just 5 in the box and with UCF putting a hat on a hat, would have sprung Killins for a pretty big gain. Sterling, the lone LB close tot he line of scrimmage (LOS), won his matchup and was able to limit Killins’ gain, but the pace of play had an immediately impact. On second down, Milton was able to catch the Huskies defense before they were set, as the Knights picked up an easy first down. To begin the next set of downs, the defense lost contain and it was safety Tyler Coyle (No. 25) who bit on a read option. Milton faked the hand-off, ran left and with Coyle out of position, Milton was able to easily scamper to the sideline and pick up another first down:

Keyshawn Paul will get a lot of heat for some of the passes he gave up, but his play was very strong early. Milton looked his way on 1st down as UCF’s drive continued, but fired high. Paul (No. 24) made a nice break and hit the intended receiver as the ball was passing overhead. It was an aggressive hit for a player that boasted about his physical play prior to arriving to UConn. It took just his first defended pass to showcase that skillset:

Milton again looked Paul’s way on second down, who made another impressive play as he was on an island against two UCF receivers as Marshe Terry was pulled off his responsibility against the pass, as Milton disguised the play as a read option. After the fake-handoff, Milton looked as if would run, but quickly threw right while on the run, as he looked to set up a WR screen. Paul avoided what was a poor block attempt by UCF WR Gabe Davis and was able to bring Snelling down in space, a clear indication of Paul’s capability as a tackler from his corner spot. Had Paul not been able to bring down or hold Snelling up, additional help was delayed as Fortt had to come a long way to cover for Terry who had broken towards the QB on the read option:

Paul’s stop set-up the first 3rd down of the night as you can see Murphy trying to get in position as Milton calls for the snap. Milton fakes the inside handoff from the gun and has two defenders, Terry (No. 41) and true freshman DE Jonathan Pace (No. 97) between him and the line to gain. Pace was drawn to the handoff, while Terry hesitated in attacking Milton, who planted, split the defenders and darted up inside for the first down:

UCF continued to march down the field and ultimately found themselves inside the red zone. On a 2nd and 6, Milton again looked to challenge Paul, who was ultimately flagged for PI in the end zone. Despite the flag, Milton had already caught the defense out of position before the snap, but Paul almost recovered and what was more impressive, attempted to turn his head and make a play on the ball, almost coming down with the pick in the process. Despite the flag, it highlighted his natural ball instincts, but his aggressiveness with the ball in the air is reason for optimism:

2ND DRIVE:

UCF’s second drive ended with a 34-yard TD pass to Ole Miss transfer WR Tre Nixon, the speedster who boasts a 4.38-40 time. The Huskies brought pressure from the edge for one of the first times all night, as Terry came from his Husky spot, but his angle allowed Milton to escape the pocket. As Milton rolled to his right, he threw deep towards Nixon, who got one-step behind Paul for the touchdown:

3RD DRIVE (Kevon Jones’ first drive does not disappoint):

The third drive was the only punt of the night from UCF’s first-team offense and it was LB Kevon Jones who burst onto the scene, recording his first career tackles, while also showcasing his pursuit of the ball. He did not look like a true freshman on the drive and his performance on the entire night earned him praise from Edsall on Friday. On first down, Jones (No. 48) was able to shake the block of a pulling tight end as he tossed him aside and got in on the tackle, the first of his college career. The ability to shed the defender is what is most impressive on this play:

On the very next play, Jones was able to take the proper angle to track down Otis Anderson in space and although Anderson escaped the tackle attempt, Jones’ ability to be in position to make the tackle is promising. His effort to get outside showcases his ability to pursue the football and his tackling will only improve as he adjusts to the speed of the game. Having now seen the speed of Anderson and Killens, who are two of the quicker backs in the game, Jones is more prepared to play at this level moving forward:

Jones was again involved on the next play of the drive, making the tackle on a 3rd and 2 that saw UCF pick up the first down. The tackle showcases the hard hitting he is known for:

Jones got caught drifting too deep on the next play, with bad technique, as Milton showed play action pass. No receivers were open, so Milton took off, but Jones was able to get back in position to be able to make a tackle, had Milton not run into the umpire. He delivered a shoulder to Milton on the ground, who got up looking for a personal foul call, to no avail:

After two more first downs on successive plays, UCF found themselves with 3rd and 1 from midfield. Jones came on a run blitz, met the right guard at the line, tossed him to his right and too on the running back in the hole, stood him up and pushed him back, with help, as the Huskies held for the first time on 3rd down:

4TH DRIVE: 

The next UCF drive began with a run and it was two true freshmen defensive linemen getting involved on the play. Travis Jones made his second stop on the night and Lwal Uguak was left unblocked by a pulling right tackle and was able to showcase his pursuit from behind the play, finishing off Otis Anderson after Jones shed his block to make the tackle:

That was the only positive play on the drive defensively as the next play saw Milton complete a pass to the right sideline, which was short of the first down that should have set up a 3rd and 3. Keyshawn Paul made a late hit out of bounds that gave UCF an automatic first down and you can see the reaction by HC Randy Edsall:

Milton hit Tre Nixon on another long pass on the next play, this time against Tahj Herring-Wilson. UCF recognized the need to double Travis Jones on the play as they threw two linemen on Jones for the first time, as the Huskies rushed just four. Set-up with 1st and goal, Milton then went after Keyshawn Paul, who got beat by Gabe Davis on the slant, as seen below:

5TH DRIVE: 

The drive opened with three consecutive passes that each went for 1st downs, setting up another 1st and goal for Milton. Tahj Herring made back-to-back impressive plays, beginning with a pass break-up (PBU) and then stopped Milton on the edge for a short loss:

That set up a 3rd and goal, with the crowd fully engaged, sensing the importance of the moment on the play. Milton threw to Otis Anderson out of the backfield in the left flat, who walked in, untouched. From behind, it was clear Herring’s responsibility was the tight end, while the back was with Eli Thomas, who was playing in his first game in several years. Thomas could have run through the rub route, which would have drew a flag for a pick, but he tried to avoid the tight end, thus seeing Anderson walk into the end zone. Further communication between Herring and Thomas pre-snap could have seen better execution defensively:

6TH DRIVE:

The first drive of the second half was a rough series for Keyshawn Paul as he was tested four times, three times over the top, including one where Milton overthrew Tre Nixon, who had Paul beat by at least three steps for an easy TD. After giving up a completion on 3rd and 3 later in the drive, Milton raced UCF’s offense to the line, catching the Huskies asleep defensively. As UConn flipped corners, Paul was late in getting lined up, completely out of position at the snap. Milton went to the end zone and as Paul tried to recover, pulled the receiver down for a pass interference call. It was the last snap Paul played on the night:

True freshman Ryan Carroll replaced Paul and Milton immediately went his way. Carroll made the tackle after a short completion:

UCF found the end zone on the next play as Otis Anderson took the handoff and outran the Huskies pursuit, led by LB Kevon Jones, who took a bad angle and couldn’t catch up:

7TH DRIVE:

After back-to-back tackles by Travis Jones to start the drive, Kevon Jones got back in on the action, making his presence felt with a big hit on 1st and 10:

Two plays later, Darrian Beavers got caught in a rub route, tried to avoid it, went under the receiver and defender, which released his man on a blown coverage for a long gain. This is the second LB that could have drawn a flag for a pick had they run through the UCF receiver:

AJ Garson was able to get pressure on Milton on the next play, as he was able to escape and almost delivered a highlight reel TD pass, but it fell incomplete in the back of the end zone. He did complete his next pass on 3rd and 7 as Milton again went after Carroll, who recovered after the completion to force a fumble that was recovered by UCF’s Gabe Davis. Milton again went after Carroll for the Knights 6th touchdown of the night on the very next play.

8TH DRIVE: 

Milton’s final drive of the night ended on the second play of the 4th with his 5th touchdown pass, this one coming off a blown coverage by Darrian Beavers, who should have had Greg McRae out of the backfield. Beavers instead went after Milton, leaving McRae to run wide open down the left sideline, as the only other defender on the left side of the field was Herring, who was matched up with the outside receiver:

9TH DRIVE:

The final scoring drive of the game found UCF’s backup QB take one 70-yards to the house, aided by a bad angle taken by S Tyler Coyle (No. 25), which freed up Mack’s path to the end zone:

TAKEAWAYS:

UCF punted once in the season opener, which was the only real drive they did not score a touchdown. The pace of play certainly was an issue for UConn defensively, particularly early on, as the Knights averaged one play every 18.7 seconds of game time. The defense won’t be breathing out of a fire hose this week, as Boise averaged a play every 26.8 seconds (43-percent longer). It will give Crocker time to call the plays and the defense will be able to get set prior to every play, rather than what was seen in week 1 where there were several instances where defenders were scrambling and communication did not occur.

Coaches have also now seen game film on several redshirt and true freshmen and there won’t be a needed transition time for the young guys to get accustomed to the game and speed at this level. Improvements will be made throughout the week, changes in line-up could occur and this young defense will head out on the road, for some, for the first time in their playing careers. Boise will prevent another challenge for the UConn defense, which we’ll dive into much more as the week goes on.

MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR

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3 weeks ago
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