November 10, 2012
EAST HARTFORD —
It doesn't matter if Pittsburgh had its heart broken in a three-overtime loss last weekend at Notre Dame. It doesn't matter if initially it looked as if the Panthers forgot to pack their hearts for the flight to Connecticut.
Not to UConn anyway.
What matters at this point is the Huskies seized this night, or at least enough of it for their first Big East victory of the year. What matters is that with an entire season threatening to slip down the plumbing, the Huskies responded with enough complementary football — one of Paul Pasqualoni's pet phrases — deserving of this complimentary analysis:
Hey, they won.
It's about time.
And it's about time the UConn offense laser-focused on Ryan Griffin at least in the first half.
You don't need to be Vince Lombardi or Bill Belichick to see that the Huskies allowed two or three games to slip through their fingers this season. Western Michigan, Temple, USF, even North Carolina State, any one of those L's could have been W's. So it wasn't insane to have called for UConn and its coaching staff to have done more with this favorable schedule. They clearly should have been better than 3-6 entering Friday night at Rentschler Field.
Yet having said that: Bully for all three of UConn's units. Linebacker Sio Moore was all over the place, menacing quarterback Tino Sunseri. Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown, making poor punter Matt Yoklic look like he was running in sand.
Yet when it was over, when the Huskies had outlasted the Panthers 24-17, one couldn't help but walk away thinking again about how they had allowed a 24-0 lead to slip … no, I'm not going to go there today. Let UConn and Pasqualoni enjoy this one.
"That's the type of the offense we can play," Griffin said. "We showed the type of team we are with the heart and senior leadership we have. We've been playing too bad. We really showed what we are made of tonight.
"You look in everybody's eyes. You ask yourself what went wrong. Tonight we were hitting on all cylinders. You look at two years ago. We beat Pitt right here and it restarted that season, so why can't we do it again?"
There's a lot of bunk out there that UConn doesn't have any talent. Look at the defense: Moore, Yawin Smallwood, Trevardo Williams, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz. There's talent. Look at the special teams: Williams, Cole Wagner, except for the meltdown against Temple, Chad Christen. There's enough talent to win games.
There aren't as many stars on offense. But Griffin, at 6-6, 247, the senior tight end is as good as anybody on the team.
That's why it's a bit mystifying that Griffin wasn't targeted more the first half of the season. He caught one pass for 34 yards against UMass. He caught one for 4 yards against NC State and one for 2 yards against Maryland. After three catches against Western Michigan, one for a touchdown, he only caught one again against Buffalo.
That's seven catches in five games. Granted, fellow tight end John Delahunt also was targeted some. Still, seven catches in five games wasn't nearly enough for a guy who is capable of making pro money on Sundays.
Griffin had 31 catches as a sophomore in 2010. He caught 33 balls last season for 499 yards and three touchdowns. On the John Mackey Award Watch List, he had just 20 through nine games this year. Granted four of them were for touchdowns, including a 42-yarder against Temple, but we saw in the first half exactly what kind of a pass-catching bear he can be.
UConn needs to feed the bear.
Griffin had six receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. And then … he finished with six for 84 yards. The only time Griffin was targeted in the second half, Chandler Whitmer overthrew him on what would have been a fourth-quarter touchdown and ended up as an interception by Jarred Holley.
"It was an aggressive call, we thought he'd be wide open, he was wide open," said Pasqualoni, knowing he could have had a field goal to make it 27-10. "Chandler couldn't believe he was so wide open. He overthrew it. But he came back and made a play at the end [a last-possession completion to Shakim Phillips] that won the game."
"We want that one back," Griffin said. "It would have capped off a great night. Too open, yeah. We practiced it all week and I think there was more coverage during the week."
Griffin came out growling, catching three balls on a terrific opening scoring drive. On a second-and-3 play, Griffin caught a pass from Whitmer and leaped over cornerback Lafayette Pitts for a 23-yard gain. Agility from the big guy.
"That was the second time we ran the boot and I saw some open field," Griffin said. "I had them put it on tape before and some guys were going low at me. I figured why not? Just jump over them. That's probably my best vertical I ever leaped."
He then slipped free for a 2-yard TD catch, Griffin's fifth touchdown catch of the season.
"We ran the ball fairly well early," Pasqualoni said. "That got them running to the ball and then Chandler came off the misdirection play-action. Because the linebacker was running so hard to the tailback, there was nobody covering Griffin."
The problem Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst said was "eye discipline."
"A lot of times with a play-action pass the eyes get caught up on the run fake," he said. "I give them credit. They were efficient and they did a good job of running the ball, which helps with the play action."
"They were playing a lot of quarters," Griffin said. "We were hoping to hit a long one. We had some play action stuff, too, that I was targeted on. The boots, Chandler just dumped them off to me."
Yes, Delahunt has 14 catches for 177 yards and a touchdown this year. But you have to wonder why DeLeone didn't go more to his tight ends overall. There are a lot of things to wonder about this offense, but Griffin, who tied his career high with six catches and now has 26 for the season, isn't a secret. He's a player.
"You always feel as though you can do more, especially in this kind of season," Griffin said. "I just think Chandler throws the ball wherever the defense gives him. I'm not complaining. I'm happy with the win."
Look, the Huskies have been outscored 76-3 in the second half of games since the third quarter against Buffalo. They sat on another lead and came fairly close to frittering this one away, too. But I'm exhausted writing about that point.
So I'll settle on this.
Ryan Griffin is a bear.
Feed the bear.
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