The UConn performance defensively through the first quarter of the season has been poor. Statistically, from a total yards perspective, the Huskies are the only team since at least 2000 to give up at least 2,000 yards (2,020) over the first three games of a season. At 9.62 yards allowed per play, opponents are gaining a first down at almost every snap. And it’s not just yards. UCF, Boise State and URI have combined to average 55.7 points per game against the Huskies, almost a full 10 points more than what Oregon State, who ranks 128th nationally in scoring defense, have allowed.
The Huskies are young defensively and that’s been pointed to as the main reason for the struggles. Missed assignments, lack of gap coverage, missed tackles, losing leverage and undisciplined eyes have led to big plays after big plays. Head coach Randy Edsall described as much following Saturday’s win.
“When you see those gaping holes, you know somebody messed up,” Edsall confirmed. “We’re seeing it in practice and we try to correct it, but everything that we do, everyone has a gap. The gaps are A, B, C, D on the front, on both sides. Everyone has a gap that they are responsible for. A lot of the times when we get those gashes, we have people who aren’t taking care of gap integrity. What they’re doing is not what they should be, they are going right down the middle of a guy, they aren’t playing a gap, guys get a hold of them and then they can’t get off. That’s the thing we need to get better at because our gap integrity on defense is not very good right now. That’s why you see those gashes.”
Gap integrity is one area that needs dramatic improvement. Another that was missing until late in the win over URI, was a pass rush. As the game progressed on Saturday, the Huskies finally began to generate pressure and it was a positive sign that ultimately won the game.
GETTING OFF THE FIELD, PRESSURE
In the first half Saturday, the Rams were moving the ball so efficiently, they didn’t face a 3rd down attempt. That changed in the second half, however and the UConn defense, who had given up 10-of-12 3rd/4th down conversions in the season opener to UCF and another 7-of-10 to Boise State, held URI to 0-of-4 3rd down conversions, while letting up a long 4th and 16 on the last drive of the game. Percentage wise that’s a steady improvement from 83% to 70% to 20% from week-to-week-to-week and a lot of that had to do with the pressure the unit was able to generate up front on Saturday in that second half.
On the final drive of the game, Edsall inserted Eli Thomas at defensive end for the full drive (he had appeared at d-end earlier in the game), opposite Darrian Beavers, who officially moved to that position earlier in the week. On the final play of the game, Thomas solidified the win, with a sack that ended it, seen here:
On the play, Thomas lined up outside of the tight end, with James Atkins in the A-gap. Thomas and Atkins ran a stunt, with Eli darting towards the inside of the left tackle after a quick move to show towards his outside. That quick hesitation move allowed Thomas a free route to the quarterback and he delivered on the sack as time expired. Thomas’ speed on the play is something the Huskies may utilize at the position as the season moves forward, something Edsall talked about after the game:
The staff would be smart to indeed expand that role. The second to last play, Thomas was again able to get to the quarterback, lining up outside the tight end and beating the left tackle to his outside, almost getting a strip sack, but Lawson was able to throw it away. NOTE that Thomas’ rush on this play, ultimately set up his sack on the very next, but these two plays showcase his speed as an edge rusher:
Earlier in the drive, James Atkins recorded his first sack of the season, lining up at a defensive tackle spot. On this play, like the previous, Eli Thomas and Darrian Beavers are the ends, with Atkins and Jonathan Pace the tackles. Pace and Atkins ran a stunt that freed up a lane for the senior to sack Lawson. You can also see Thomas, once again, beat his blocker, this time the right tackle, to his outside, again showcasing his speed off the edge, as Atkins got to Lawson a step before Thomas:
Given the results that a quicker line was able to generate, look for the Huskies to play around with personnel up front as the season progresses.
ROBINSON CONTINUED TO SHOW FLASHES
True freshman safety Oneil Robinson, who started in place of Omar Fortt, made a beautiful diving interception in the 1st quarter, jumping an out route, showcasing his athleticism on the play. He’s a player that stood out all camp for his physicality and his ball skills on this pick are a sign of good things to come. If he continues to develop, he will be hard to keep off the field and that is a very good problem for the Huskies to have:
Despite some of the positives mentioned above, there is a lot of work to do and one of the main areas of concern centers around eye discipline, particularly from the secondary. Edsall commented on that subject following the win over URI:
The play Edsall was referring to came with just under 10-minutes left in the 3rd quarter, as true freshman CB Keyshawn Paul made an appearance, subbing in for Jeremy Lucien at the start of the drive. Paul was caught looking in the backfield and got beat on the aforementioned out-and-up, seen here:
A closer look reveals exactly what Edsall described. Paul was looking to jump the out-route, with eyes fully engaged in the backfield, while he allowed the receiver to release up the field, seen here:
It’s just one example of the eye discipline issues the secondary has been plagued with throughout the start of the season. How to fix it? As Edsall said, repetition and experience. The players, all young, will only learn from these mistakes as they continue to play, look at film and prepare. How quickly that improvement hits will ultimately rely on how they are coached and how quickly the players respond.
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