BY JOHN F. SILVER
STORRS – Lyle McCombs can run the ball.
That’s not an issue for the University of Connecticut. As a freshman McCombs was second team all-Big East and finished his inaugural season with 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns on a work-horse number of 275 carries.
McCombs was the UConn (1-1) offense last year and was considered one of the top running backs in the Big East. He’s proven, he’s tested and the run game was something UConn was going to count on.
After two games, McCombs has 142 yards and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and the Huskies are 1-1. The slippery McCombs has had few big runs and hasn’t had much of an opportunity in open space. McCombs is the kind of running back that likes to be fed the ball and wants to get 1-on-1 with defenders to give him a chance to make them miss. Those chances have been few and far between.
He rushed for 82 yards on 23 carries in the opener against UMass and the 60 on 20 carries in a 10-7 loss to N.C. State.
What’s the problem?
If it was easily identified, it would have been solved already.
This season, McCombs has more often been not running for his life behind the line of scrimmage. His longest run in two games and 42 carries is 15 yards. That’s not the highly-productive player that we were used to seeing last season. The Huskies are ranked 101 in the nation in rushing, a scandalous place for any UConn rushing game to be. It isn’t a case of taking too many sacks either (sacks are considered rush yards in college), the Huskies’ poor rushing stats are earned.
No one is more frustrated than McCombs. It’s been a steady diet of running the ball with nowhere to go. Part of it is poor blocking on the offensive line, part of it is play-calling, and sometimes part of it is McCombs being impatient. He’s missed holes, hasn’t waited for blocks like he has practiced and generally been ineffective in two games.
“Sometimes I will miss hole and sometimes the linemen will miss a little,” McCombs said. “It’s uncharacteristic of us to make mistakes like that. But there is reason for it. I guess we’ve taken it for granted that the running game is going to be there.”
Taking something that basic to UConn’s success for granted is something they can’t do on Saturday against Maryland (2-0) at Byrd Stadium. The Huskies aren’t built to be a pass-happy offense no matter how poor the Terrapins’ secondary is. The Huskies’ offense starts on the ground, and that starts with blocking on the offensive line and getting McCombs the ball in space.
Senior guard Adam Masters has been a part of a line that has blocked for a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in the same year in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman, an All-American year from Todman where he rushed for 1,695 yards and then McCombs’ 1,000 plus last year.
To have the struggles in the run game is unfathomable.
“It’s important to establish run game and give our offensive players a boost to move the ball when we want to,” Master said.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the running game is that the breakdowns aren’t large. It’s one block, one cut, and one missed assignment that kills the play.
McCombs has taken several handoffs and it’s set up perfectly for a big play. The next thing he knows he’s on the ground for a negative gain.
“Sometimes I am one block away from being gone,” McCombs said. “It may look like I am being tackled in the backfield. But if that guy is blocked, I would be gone for a 60-yard gain.”
The offensive line is coming off a season where it gave up 41 sacks. The pass protection has been adequate in the first two starts as Chandler Whitmer, so that’s an improvement, but the run game hasn’t arrived. Masters sees the exact same missed blocks that McCombs sees. No one is trying to diffuse responsibility on the running game – it’s on the offensive line.
“It’s a matter of taking care of your teammates,” Masters said. “Physically, we are capable of beating any team we play. That’s the thing that is much frustrating thing. I know this line is physically capable of moving any defensive front in the nation. It’s a matter of us doing it.”
The Huskies sorely need that line surge and McCombs to break out in the running game. Whitmer hasn’t played well, with five interceptions at quarterback, but he has shown some encouraging signs and is averaging 211 yards per game passing without the running game.
Add a dangerous running game to the mix and suddenly things will come much easier in that passing game.
That’s the goal this week against Maryland. The Terrapins are at their strongest in the front seven and are allowing only 78 yards per game on the ground. The Huskies are going to have to do better than that on Saturday.