November 11, 2022. UConn took down No. 19 Liberty to become bowl eligible in their final home game of Jim Mora’s first season. The Huskies were 6-5 and playing the best ball they’ve showcased in years. Since then? Five straight losses, all games UConn could have and if you talked to the group, should have won. It’s a regression, particularly after they learned how to come out on top in close games in the middle of last season.
The five consecutive losses put Connecticut in the third spot for longest losing streaks in the nation, behind only Nevada (12) and Virginia (6). What’s worse, the last two weeks were penciled in as wins by fans who entered 2023 optimistic, including those who dusted off their football jersey’s for the first time in a decade and came out to support a program they perceived was back on the rise in the season opener.
Losing in a close battle at home to an NC State squad that throttled the Huskies just a season ago? Acceptable in fans’ eyes. Confirmation of a step in the right direction. Getting completely outmatched on the scoreboard on the road to a vastly unknown, at least in these parts, Georgia State? Unacceptable.
However, zoom out and last week was a continuation of letting one get away from them at West Point to close the regular season at Army and not coming out of the gates strong against Marshall in the bowl game.
Next week marks the Huskies lone home game against a ranked opponent this year, so certainly, returning home to The Rent this afternoon against FIU would be just what the doctor ordered to get UConn back on track before that matchup, right? After all, FIU was their best offensive showing, on the road a year ago, a 33-12 win and this matchup was at home. Well, the first 30-minutes were anything, but. They came out flat. And in the first half, it looked at times like they did not care and lacked effort.
CT’s own and captain Jackson Mitchell left the field heading to the locker room at the break with a not so leader like response to the crowd reigning down boos after the Huskies slept-walked through the first 30-minutes. It’s not the first sign of the Huskies lacking discipline in 2023. Against NC State there were mistakes, like Victor Rosa’s somersault into the end zone, followed by another breakdown on special teams, which preceded a late hit. All errors controllable. Same as in Georgia State, self-inflicted. Confusion on defense. Mental errors. Tackling issues. Not being on the same page.
So what’s the cause? Is Mora doing too much with handling defensive play calling again in 2023, without a designated defensive coordinator? Is that having an impact? Is coaching turnover year-over-year, an issue? UConn lost running back coach EJ Barthel and wide receiver coach John Allen. Off the field staff, there was turnover with General Manager Preston Pehrson, Director of Player Personnel Beau Davidson and Director of Football Operations Andrew Goodman, among others.
On the field, key offensive contributors Nate Carter, Keelan Marion and Aaron Turner transferred, while major leaders like Ian Swenson, Robert Burns, Marquez Bembry, Jake Guidone and Brandon Bouyer-Randle graduated. Last word is All-American kick returner Brian Brewton left the program last week.
Those losses add up for a program that made such a massive turnaround in 2022. Didn’t voice it, but certainly there had to be some caution following such a drastic shift upward, as things naturally trend to take a step back to the mean, before continuing on an upswing. Is this group maybe not as focused as they were in year one after year’s of futility?
But the biggest disappointment, is this season has been controllable. Not being able to shut down a one-read QB and let him escape time and again? Not being able to bring down and contain a running quarterback for a defensive front that had received accolades this offseason? Not opening holes in the running game for an offensive line as a unit that perhaps received unnecessary praise based on just the experience and individual talent they brought back?
So where does UConn go from here? I’ve seen the comments. Play calling needs to be better. Offensive production needs to be better. Ta’Quan Roberson made his first home start of his UConn career and the first half yielded just 3-points. In the passing game, the quick passes to Justin Joly on the edge are taking too long to develop; not a Roberson issue in my opinion; the same was the case last season and also with Joe Fagnano at the helm.
I had several conversations both on and off the record with OC Nick Charlton last year regarding the game, his philosophy and he’s clear what’s acceptable and what’s not. No doubt he’s taking these performances harder than anyone. The stats tell the story. Offensively, UConn has produced more than 21-points on the scoreboard just three times over the first 16-games where Charlton is calling the shots. Take out defensive scores, short fields and the sustained drive scores over the first season and a quarter have been few and far between. To borrow Mora’s thoughts on the offense as a whole in 2023? They’ve been, ‘putrid.’
I do, however, think Charlton can fix this. Last year should have a huge asterisk in assessing overall performance. That’s not normally the case for big-time football, but given where this program was coming from, then add the injuries (QB, top 3 RB’s at times and top 4 WR’s) and if we’re assessing honestly, it was Charlton calling plays with one arm tied behind his back.
This year, however, he brought in his guy, who won the job in camp, but was unable to produce outside of an opening drive touchdown in the season opener. The Huskies game planning to me has been stronger heading into games and faded as game action progresses. That’s a sign of being outcoached and not making the right adjustments.
It’s not all one coach’s fault, it’s everyone’s responsibility, player’s included. Keelan Marion made the play to put BYU in position on a 37-yard catch to set up the touchdown on the Cougars game-winning drive at Arkansas earlier tonight. The Huskies could have used that playmaking ability offensively this year, no doubt. His departure was certainly avoidable. That type of swagger is something that is lacking from this unit so far in 2023.
And yet, through it all, call me crazy, but even at 0-3, I’ve seen signs, especially defensively. Pitching a shut out after letting FIU do whatever they pleased in the first half yesterday? Controlling the line of scrimmage against NC State? The problem is, UConn has not yet put together a full, complete game. The talent is here to be competitive in any game this season. That’s a testament to what Mora has done with the roster since his arrival. I hate preaching it as we’ve heard it year-after-year-after-year. Give it time. This season isn’t lost. And if they put a full 60-minutes together against Duke, we may all have a different outlook on 2023 following Saturday.