UConn football: Huskies wear brave face

South Florida tight end Jeff Hawkins (89) cannot hang onto a second-quarter pass from quarterback B.J. Daniels after getting past Connecticut linebacker Jory Johnson (28) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

John F. Silver

STORRS, Conn. — It’s a short week for the UConn football team.

The hangover from another frustrating loss is still with the Huskies, a 13-6 defeat after two weeks of preparation is hard to get rid of. But, there are still three games left and according linebacker Jory Johnson it is all worth winning.

UConn plays Pittsburgh on Friday night and needs to sweep its final three to make a bowl game.

“It’s getting frustrating,” linebacker Jory Johnson said. “But that’s how life is sometimes. You do all you can sometimes it doesn’t go your way. You have to keep doing the same thing you do every day and hope for better results…it’s been going tough but we have to keep working.”

Last Saturday’s 13-6 loss to South Florida was a difficult one for the team. There was effort, there was good play especially by the defense and the offense did have instances where it moved the ball. The team rebounded from a blowout loss against Syracuse to have several fourth quarter opportunities against South Florida. They just didn’t cash in on them and that’s what hurt the most. The record is 3-6, 0-4 in the Big East and things look bleak. 

Paul Pasqualoni liked a lot of what he saw against South Florida, but, the inability to score on offense and cash in on defense has limited the Huskies. UConn has lot four straight games and 5 of 6 going back to a rousing win at Maryland.

“There are things we are doing that we are doing pretty good,” Pasqualoni said. “Coming out of the South Florida game there are things we can build on. We played so much better against South Florida than we did against Syracuse. Syracuse was an uncharacteristic performance  overall by our team. Last week, we were more back on track. A lot of things that we got to get better at. We gave up a big run early in the game which hurt us and put them in position to go on a hurry-up play and get a touchdown. We’ve got to do a better job than that.”
The Huskies aren’t naive to what’s facing them. UConn is 3-6 and the odds are strongly against them sweeping the final three games of the season. IN fact, a two-game winning streak has so far eluded Pasqualoni in his two years at UConn. The goal this week against a heartbroken Pittsburgh team is to win the game and move on.

Whitmer

“You got to believe,” quarterback Chander Whitmer said. ” Right now we are focused on Friday and nothing matters if we don’t win on Friday and beat Pitt.”

Here’s a quick round-up of Monday’s press conference. The Huskies have a short week with Pittsburgh on Friday and don’t have an off day this week.
* Pasqualoni is well-aware with how Pitt has played this year. He knew right after Saturday’s game that the Panthers loss in triple overtime to Notre Dame and he thinks highly of what first year coach Paul Chryst is doing in Pittsburgh.
The key to the Panthers is Sunseri and Graham. Sunseri has 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions this season and is playing the best football of his career despite it being the third system (and technically fourth head coach) in his career. Graham, who was one of the most explosive backs in the country last season before tearing his ACL against UConn, is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns averaging 88.2 yards per game. He doesn’t get all the carries with Rushel Shell taking in 443 yards this season. It’s a good offense averaging 28.7 points per game.
“They are the best 4-5 team in the country, a really good team,” Pasqualoni said. “Tino Sunseri is having a really good year, probably his best year as a quarterback. I think he is doing good. Ray Graham is kind of a special guy. He had that injury against us last year and has come back from that injury and is playing really good football. I like Devin Street, Mike Shanahan is pretty good, and they’ve brought in the Wisconsin zone running game and doing a pretty good job with running the ball. They run the zone play and do a good job with it. They have been very productive…what they are doing fits into their personnel. Tino is doing an excellent job the wide receivers are doing an excellent job getting open and down the field.”
* Speaking of the Notre Dame-Pitt loss. UConn kicker Chad Christen became fast friends with Pitt kicker Kevin Harper, who missed a 33-yard field goal in overtime that would have beat the Irish. Christen, who missed an overtime field goal against Temple that cost UConn the game, knows exactly what he’s going through.
“It was a tough break for him,” Christen said. “He missed 1 field goal that game, was 4 for 5 and if you look at the miss, it looked like a high snap and threw him off. “
Harper actually gave Christen advice last summer: He actually told me about his first games as a starter and couple of misses he had, a couple of short ones and couldn’t believe it. You feel for these guys. It happens to every kicker. No kicker has gone 100 percent. Almost every kicker has missed a critical situation field goal they would like to get back. “
*Christen also talked about the new kickoff rules that are leading to an extraordinary amount of touchbacks. UConn didn’t have a single return, punt or kickoff against South Florida. The punt returns are something the staff is working on. The kickoffs? It’s a new rule with touchbacks going to the 25 and the kickoff starting at the 40.

That has hampered one of the Huskies’ greatest weapons in Williams, who is only averaging 20 yards per return and doesn’t get many of them.  Eliminating those returns was the goal of the competition committee.

” I think it takes away from a lot of dynamic and explosive gains,” Christen said. “The rule is what it is, it’s a safety precaution which is very important in this sport of contact. It takes away from people’s full potential.  The new rule inhibits (Williams) from being the best football player he can be. It’s a safety issue and it has had a big effect this season.”

Punts are a different story. Pasqualoni blamed some circumstance — good punting that is pinning UConn back, punt scheme such as a safe punt with to prevent a fake, and also inability for the blocks to get set up.

” We have to do a better job of holding people up on a punt return,” Pasqualoni said. “Sometimes you try to block.  The other thing that happens, when the ball is up around midfield, you are not going to get a bunch of returns because of hang time. Years back I don’t remember as many punters being as efficient with the pooch punt as they are nowadays. Our guy (Cole Wagner) is terrific with the pooch punt.

“Flat out we have to do better job getting Nick away on punts. But, the last few games there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities to get him off, that’s the way it worked out. We’ve been in punt safe several times, if ball is up around midfield and worried about faking it, we are in the defense and Williams is the safety and we don’t have the punt return on.”
* Geremy Davis has had an excellent year for the Huskies winning a starting job out of summer camp to become the No. 1 receiver on the team. Davis leads the Huskies with 36 catches for 547 yards, one touchdown and a 15.2 average.
Pasqualoni likes the production in the passing game. The confounding part of what the Huskies are doing is while the passing game improves the running game struggles. That’s counter to what is expected.
“The thing that is impressive to me is the number of explosive pass plays we have. We are hitting 8 or 9 a game and that is something that is pretty positive,” Pasqualoni said. “We have to continue to be efficient in that area and we have to get the run game going. If we can get more balance in this thing, from an offensive standpoint, we will get the offensive production and the points needed to win games.”
The Huskies are averaging 235 yards per game passing and Whitmer has passed for 200 yards or more in seven of 10 games this season. Whitmer has also passed for 250 yards or more in four games including the last three. His last three games are 293, 296 and 284. That’s light years ahead of what the Huskies put up even when they were doing well in past years.
That’s it for tonight. Gotta pay the bills.