September 30, 2012
EAST HARTFORD — Ho.
A win is not to be mocked. A win is not to be scorned. A W is a W is a W, even when you've beaten that opponent eight successive times dating to 2002, even when you've beaten that MAC opponent 12 of the past 13 times.
Having said that: UConn 24, Buffalo 17. Ho. And hum.
UConn had Buffalo down 24-7 with five minutes left in the third quarter Saturday at Rentschler Field. UConn had Buffalo down 17 points after a seven-play, 46-yard touchdown drive started with —shock! — an 18-yard pass play to Nick Williams. UConn should have grasped the momentum to blow the game open.
Instead? Blah. Instead? Yawn. It was the Huskies who almost rocked themselves to sleep. Although coach Paul Pasqualoni would insist it was not the case, the Huskies took their foot off the pedal of success. How the Huskies went from 17 points up at home against an inferior opponent — an opponent missing the fifth-leading rusher in the country — to needing a defensive a stop in the final minute is Exhibit A in how not to finish off a game.
In case fewer people are watching, UConn football has slowly been eroding in popularity the past few years. Some of it is in the school's and Pasqualoni's control. The Huskies have not won two in a row since Randy Edsall in 2010. Some of it is not in UConn's control, like the ever-changing conference structure that left West Virginia winning a 70-63 thriller against Baylor in the Big 12 and, well, WVU's replacement Temple is coming into the Rent in two weeks.
Anybody who claims UConn football isn't lacking excitement, some pop these days isn't telling the truth. When there hasn't been anything close to a sellout through three home games and the announced attendance of 34,666 Saturday looked more like 29,666, well, those seats without fannies do not lie.
"Coach Pasqualoni said it: Great win, but we need to get off this one-win, one-loss roller coaster," running back Lyle McCombs said.
Roller coasters can be fun. This was more like the merry-go-round.
"The first thing that sticks out to me is we didn't turn the ball over," Pasqualoni said.
No, the Huskies didn't turn the ball over, but they did run a serious risk of turning off an awful lot of folks. You play it closer to the vest ahead 17 in the second half. Understood. You play it so close to the vest that you rip your chest hairs off, that's another story.
On the first eight series, the Huskies had 313 yards offense. On their final five series, the Huskies had 29. On the first eight series, Whitmer, who connected with eight different teammates, was 13-for-17 for 216 yards. All sorts of double-digit vertical yardage. In the final 20 minutes he completed two of five both to running backs for 11 yards. During the final five series, Whitmer never threw the ball down field to a wide receiver. OK, it was hard to tell his intent on one, because the pass was batted down.
Whitmer threw only one really bad pass, one that should have been intercepted by linebacker Lee Skinner in the third quarter. And that seemed to scare Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone all the way back to 1928 football.
"We kind of stalled out a little bit," Whitmer said. "That's something we want to improve on. We've got to finish it and put it away."
"Maybe a loss in concentration, complacency," Whitmer said. "Maybe we become conscious [of the clock] of that a little early, instead of putting on the pedal."
McCombs was a little more direct, "We got a little comfortable. We need to do a better job finishing games, putting the dagger in their heart, putting up one more score so they don't have any life."
Here's something else to consider. Of 26 first-and-10 situations, including the victory formation with 12 seconds left, McCombs ran the ball 22 times. Here's a scoop. First and 10. Handoff to McCombs. In the first four games, UConn ran the ball 73 percent of the time on first down. On Saturday, it was 85 percent of the time. In fact, 22 of McCombs' 29 carries were on first down.
Can anyone spell predictable?
Maybe that has something to do with McCombs' 3.3 yards per carry in this game, too. Maybe it's not all bad run blocking.
The stat sheet will show, three sacks, but the offensive line did do a better job of pass protection. There were several plays when Whitmer had loads of time in the pocket. One big-gainer across the middle to McCombs in the first half came off his third check-down in his progression.
"You saw what happened when they gave him time," McCombs said. "He made the throws. It made for a great day for him statistically."
With no touchdown passes and six interceptions through the early going in Western Michigan, Whitmer insisted his confidence was not dented.
"Absolutely not," Whitmer said.
He has four touchdowns and no interceptions in the past seven quarters. In the first half, he engineered a 10-play, 92-yard drive that was the best of the season.
"I don't see any more confidence in him than in the previous four games," McCombs said. "He's always confident. That's what I like about him. That confidence circulates around the huddle. We trust him. What I see different in him is he actually has some time back there. He's a little more relaxed in the pocket."
Pasqualoni's words read more upbeat than his body posture. He looked less pleased than his adjectives.
"There were a couple of opportunities there, where maybe we could have taken advantage of a little field position, but they came back with a trick play and they got us," Pasqualoni said. "They fought their way back into it."
Outmanned on the road, Jeff Quinn had a few moments of inspiration. On fourth-and-5 at the UConn 34 early on, Buffalo went for it and smelled the UConn defensive heat. A screen pass went for 30 yards. After the ensuing touchdown, the Bulls recovered an onside quick. And when they fell behind 24-7, Brandon Murie scored on a 50-yard hook-and-lateral.
"In the second half, we played a solid game," Pasqualoni said. "Overall, it was a complementary win for us, offense, defense, special teams."
This was supposed to be a day when the Huskies, 17-point favorites, gained a convincing head of steam into Rutgers and the Big East season. What we got were no turnovers. And no mocking here. Complementary win? OK. But not a complimentary win.
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