Column: For Diaco and UConn football, judgment day has arrived

Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco stands on the sideline during the first quarter of an NCAA football game against Central Florida Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (Stew Milne/AP Photo)

There was such optimism coming into this season for the UConn football team, and for good reason. The Huskies won six games last season, including a stunning home win over a previously-undefeated Houston team in late November, as they claimed their first bowl bid since 2015.

Listen to head coach Bob Diaco talk, and you can begin to talk yourself into great things. Probably not an undefeated season, as Diaco famously predicted before the 2015 season, but significant progress for a program that has searched desperately for stability and success this decade.

At times this season, that potential for progress has been on display: an impressive second half comeback against Navy in Annapolis, however tarnished by shaky late-game execution; Resiliency at home to hold off Virginia; hanging with the explosive USF offense on a rainy night in Florida.

Some of these games didn’t end in victories, but when you listen to Diaco talk after the game about the positives to be taken even in defeat, his sentiments made sense. There was a light still hanging, perhaps unreliably, at the end of the tunnel, and the path to another bowl game was still illuminated.

After a disappointing 24-16 home loss to UCF on Oct. 22, that light began to fade, and after this past Saturday’s miserable show in East Carolina, you’d be forgiven for saying that the light is out completely. The Huskies were dominated in all aspects of the game as the Pirates snapped a five-game losing streak with a 41-3 rout.

A bowl bid would now require three straight wins to close the season, including one against Temple this Friday, a team UConn has not beaten since 2013.

That seems highly unlikely, especially for a team that struggled so comprehensively on Saturday afternoon that it seemed as if they had done no preparation at all.

The Huskies allowed 19 catches to star wide receiver Zay Jones, the most receptions surrendered in a single game in program history, and each Jones catch seemed to provide no indication to the UConn sideline that more were coming. Throw, to Jones, catch, by Jones. Rinse and repeat. It’s the team’s philosophy to surrender shorter gains and prevent the big play, but at some point enough is enough.

Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu (20) and East Carolina's Zay Jones (7) dive to catch a pass in the Pirates' end zone during an NCAA college football game Saturday. Oct. 29, 2016. in Greenville, N.C.. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector via AP)

That passing proficiency made the Huskies vulnerable on the ground, where they were gashed. The Pirates even executed trick plays on multiple occasions, as both Jones and running back James Summers threw touchdown passes. For Diaco, who has busted out the book of illusions fairly often during his stint at UConn, it was a bitter taste of his own medicine.

The offense was equally disastrous, as the Huskies failed to score a touchdown for the first time this season. The offensive line allowed four sacks to an ECU front that had just one sack entering the game. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs was 16-30 passing and tossed two ugly interceptions.

Wide receiver Noel Thomas continued his excellence by snatching seven passes for 135 yards, a lone bright spot.

It may seem like piling on at some point, but this UConn loss was every bit as bad as the final score, if not worse, and cannot simply be wished away. We can’t say “on to the next game” and forget this one.

This was simply an unacceptable performance, and has brought about a meaningful gut check moment for Diaco and his football team.

The Huskies need to rally, and they need to do so quickly. A bowl bid is still on the table, and the road starts with their biggest challenge as Temple travels to East Hartford this Friday. UConn will be the underdog. If they can somehow pull off a win, winnable games against Boston College and Tulane are all that stand between the Huskies and a bowl bid.

They will probably not beat Temple. That much is obvious. Unfortunately, too many opportunities to win games in crunch time have been squandered this season already, and that has probably sunk their postseason hopes.

However, the Huskies cannot afford to come out and lay another egg Friday night. Their season is spiraling out of control as is, but it could potentially look much worse if UConn finishes out on a six-game losing streak. All three remaining games are winnable, but the Huskies could easily lose all three as well.

If the worst-case scenario comes to fruition, UConn will head into the offseason with a 3-9 finish, three games behind where they finished a year ago. Then, it’s time to panic. That’s only a possibility right now, but it’s a distinct and real one.

Until then, there may be time to turn things around. Sweeping strategical changes are not likely, but Diaco still has the chance, and the ability, to re-motivate a team that’s threatening to go careening off the rails.

Saturday’s game against East Carolina should have never gone as poorly as it did, and Diaco was quick to take the blame. Now, he’s faced with a daunting challenge, and for both the program and its fan base, this is the moment of truth. How will UConn respond? The answer will go a long way towards projecting the Huskies’ future.


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.