It’s year two of the Bob Diaco era for UConn football. After a disappointing first year with Diaco at the helm, the Huskies have already matched their 2014 win total, starting this year 2-0 before falling 9-6 to back-to-back SEC East division champion No. 20 Missouri on the road Saturday.
The wins are important, for sure. Wins put people in seats, get recruits interested and put the program on the map nationally. But so far this season, no game has defined the remarkable improvement this team has made more than the loss to Mizzou.
Wins against Villanova and Army showed promise, but raised some questions. We knew the defense would be as good as last year, if not better. Defense hasn’t been an issue at UConn in years, and having eight former members of the UConn defense playing on Sundays is a good reason why.
Talent has always been prevalent on defense, but the offense hasn’t pulled their weight since the Randy Edsall era. After two games with some markedly improved offense, UConn fans had their fair share of questions about the offense. Was success due to the offense taking advantage of the considerably smaller Nova and Army defensive lines? Was Bryant Shirreffs for real, or was he just feasting on lower-level talent?
The Missouri game didn’t end well for UConn but it proved a lot of things. The offensive line is better than last year, especially on pass protection. Shirreffs has time to watch plays develop, and if the pocket does break down, he has enough speed to extend plays with his legs. The offensive line still has problems with the running game, as the team is only averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
So far, Diaco has been able to work around this with short swing passes to running backs Arkeel Newsome and Josh Marriner, along with a few others. Eventually, the line will need to continue to improve in order to balance out the offensive attack.
As for Shirreffs, his line against the Tigers shows he certainly has the skill to be one of the best quarterbacks the Huskies have had in years. Shirreffs went 17-26 for 156 yards against the Tigers, and most importantly didn’t turn the ball over once. While he still struggled at points throughout the game, his ability to protect the football against one of the nation’s top defenses is an encouraging sign of what’s to come for UConn this season.
On top of all of this, the final score says a lot more about this team than it usually does, even if it was a loss. Despite being more than a 20-point underdog at kickoff, the Huskies held their own with a high-caliber SEC team for all four quarters, and even took a lead into halftime in front of 70,000 fans on the road. They even had a chance to pull out a victory with under a minute left to play.
That play is one that will be talked about for years. It will be questioned, critiqued, and scrutinized even more than it already has been. It’s easy for me to say this now, because it didn’t work, but I’ll say it anyway; it was the wrong call.
Shirreffs looked his best all game on that final drive. Backup quarterback and kick holder Tim Boyle had only attempted one pass prior to coming in for the most important play of the game, an incomplete pass up the middle on what was essentially the same fake field goal play they ran at the end of the game in the second quarter. Mizzou defensive players said postgame they figured it was coming, due to the ineffectiveness of the kicking game and really the special teams in general.
If you’re going to go for the win, go for it with your best guys on the field. I’ll take Shirreffs, Noel Thomas, and the rest of the UConn offense with the game on the line over a struggling special teams unit just about every time right now. I’m not a fan of putting all the eggs in one basket on a high ball up the middle and trying to catch an elite defense off guard with the game on the line. At least with a normal offensive possession, we would have had a few different options.
With this Missouri loss, UConn football showed its strengths and weaknesses in their rawest forms. While it’s tough to come away with a loss in a game that could have been won, this is the stuff that happens with a young team and an inexperienced head coach. What’s important is that this team showed more potential and more fight than any UConn football team has in years.
Diaco has already brought in and developed talent that can hang with some of the best in the nation. If that isn’t impressive and doesn’t get people excited, I don’t know what will. My one takeaway isn’t that final play, or even the final score. It’s that UConn football will be good, sooner rather than later.