After Loss To Syracuse, UConn's Offense Getting More Offensive

UConn At Syracuse

Chandler Whitmer is sacked by Syracuse defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster in the second quarter. (Patrick Raycraft, Hartford Courant / October 19, 2012)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. —

This one was worse than any bar stool argument over play-calling. This one was worse even than the offensive line's inability to block anyone with a pulse.

UConn got beat on offense Friday night. UConn got beat on defense. And by the time Syracuse was finished with its 40-10 rout, the Huskies were beaten up physically, too.

No blocking. No tackling. No vigor. Few butt-whippings were ever more thorough. UConn players got laid out all over the Carrier Dome … Yawin Smallwood, Sio Moore, Trevardo Williams, Michael Smith. Offensive lineman Adam Masters went down, the only one who couldn't return, leaving the Carrier Dome on crutches with his left foot in a boot.

And poor Chandler Whitmer? His parents ought to sue the UConn coaching staff for felonious negligence of zone-blitz blocking. Whitmer got hit so hard, so many times, I swore that Gerry McNamara was going to rush blindside off the three-point line in his basketball shorts and dance over the fallen UConn quarterback.

Whitmer doesn't need ice today. He needs the healing waters of Lourdes.

"Chandler has taken some shots over the weeks," senior captain Nick Williams said. "He's one tough kid. He still sticks in the pocket, doesn't get happy feet, doesn't throw balls to the flat because [the pocket] won't hold up. He stays in there, stays tough, keeps believing in the guys in front of him."

That belief might leave him in a body cast by Thanksgiving.

"That's football," Whitmer said. "I'm not going to quit just because I got hit."

The time, however, has come to quit on the idea that some things in coach Paul Pasqualoni's "work in progress" will naturally improve. They won't. That's why for the rest of this season, UConn should simplify its offense. And then for next season, UConn needs to look to alternatives at offensive coordinator.  

As this season falls apart, UConn hasn't scored a single point in the second half since a touchdown midway through the third quarter against Buffalo. That's seven and a half quarters over four games in crunch time: Opponents 53, UConn 0.

"I wasn't aware of that statistic," Williams said. "I do think part of it is we were forced to become one-dimensional when down some big leads, so they can drop eight or rush everybody and they know we have to pass. But not scoring any points at all when the game is on the line is upsetting and needs to be addressed."

"To me it's a situational thing and a game-by-game thing," Pasqualoni said when asked about the absence of second-half scoring.

Those are the kind of maddening replies that Pasqualoni gives sometimes. The point here is it doesn't matter if you're ahead against Buffalo and you dial it back too much and almost blow the lead, or you are forced to open it up at Syracuse because touchdowns surrounding halftime turned a 13-10 game into 27-10. The point is you can't score when it matters.

It speaks to a lack of successful adjustments. It speaks of an offense that can't block and execute. Friday night was a hideous loss in all phases, but the previous losses haven't been so hideous. The offense? It has been a problem, is a problem and will be a problem.

In his celebrated return to Syracuse, Pasqualoni said that this was a business trip and that the team wasn't going to go apple picking. They should have gone apple picking. Rotten to the core nights like this one will undoubtedly intensify fans to scream for changes top to bottom. Yet unless I'm reading this wrong, athletic director Warde Manuel isn't going to fire Pasqualoni after only two seasons into his five-year deal.

As this season dissolves to 3-5, including 0-3 in the Big East, it also would be stupid not to make changes in the play-caller if there isn't some miraculous improvement over the last four games. That idea does not figure to go over well with Pasqualoni. He and offensive coordinator George DeLeone have been friends for decades. Both of them have forgotten more about football than some sports columnist thinks he knows.

I do know this much. Sometimes the safest hires become the most dangerous ones. And while they are both nice men, a benevolent stubbornness can become an outdated arrogance. After 20 games together, their offense is failing. It's time to admit that much and look at doing something about it.

In getting scorched for 502 yards, the defense gets no compliments after Syracuse. Yet that same defense entered the night ranked sixth nationally, allowing only 261 yards a game. UConn also was the only team among the top 27 defenses to have a losing record. You know why. Can't score.

The Huskies finished 108th of 120 teams on offense at 313.17 yards in 2011. Before Friday night, they ranked 107th at 320.57 yards. That ranking isn't improving after 290 yards at Syracuse.

The Huskies finished 97th rushing in 2011 at 118.5 yards a game. Entering Syracuse they were 111th in 2012 at 100.14 yards, 2.7 a carry. And that ranking will drop because UConn had minus-6 yards — a school mark for futility — on 18 carries against the Orange. It was alarming to watch the offensive line get blown back off the line of scrimmage.

Under Pasqualoni and DeLeone, UConn runs a pro set, with zone blocking. The system requires reaction and attention to complexities that clearly this offensive line cannot handle.

Have all those handoffs on first down to Lyle McCombs been as maddening as predictable? Of course. Still, the play calling is one thing and the inability of the athletes to execute the scheme is another. Pasqualoni has said the coaching staff has enough offensive plays to wallpaper a room. What good is it if they don't work? And some of those plays could wallpaper grandma's house. They've been around for a while.

After surviving his beating, Whitmer talked about how Syracuse ran a free-safety blitz that UConn had much trouble with, but the truth is each week there's a new problem handling some blitz.  At this point, it sure looks like the passing attack should be kept primarily to short quarterback drops with quick slants and continued passes to the tight ends. That way, Whitmer can stay on his feet and stay alive. And maybe DeLeone can figure out some way to get a run block.

DeLeone added offensive line responsibilities this year, and clearly it hasn't worked. To my eye, UConn has the seventh-best talent level in the Big East. So blame it on the talent if you want. Maybe over time Pasqualoni will sift his recruits into his system and DeLeone can adequately teach the line technique. But how long will that take? And without any evidence of improvement, how do you believe it will happen?

Up and down the board, there are numbers for concern, numbers that were bad in 2011 and are getting no better. Entering Friday the Huskies were 109th in scoring, 102nd in sacks allowed, 105th in tackles for loss and 109th in interceptions. Bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.

No longer can DeLeone continue to call for two runs to McCombs and an aspirin for Whitmer after he gets sacked on third and seven. It's clearly not working.

CHICAGO