On Wednesday, Rivals’ Graham Chamberlain broke news that no UConn fan wanted to hear: He tweeted that RB Devontae Houston was set to transfer out of the program. This is just the latest piece of discouraging news that came out of Storrs, Connecticut as things just seem to continue to unravel for UConn football.
Last year, things were all smiles for the Huskies. Though they started 1-4, not far off from this year’s 0-4 record, they rallied back. Head coach Jim Mora kept his players’ heads in the game, despite three straight blowouts against top-25 competition. His Huskies upset Fresno State as the team went on to win five of their final seven regular season games.
Yes, they may have gotten fortunate. Fresno State was missing their starting QB, now New Orleans Saint Jake Haener, but UConn had day one starter Ta’Quan Roberson out too. Not to mention the fact that the Huskies were also missing star RB Nate Carter to injury and then the transfer portal. Sure, FIU and UMass weren’t very good and Boston College was in the midst of a poor season too. And maybe beating ranked Liberty wasn’t as impressive as people thought at the time, as coach Hugh Freeze’s foot was firmly out the door.
But they were wins nonetheless. Two years ago in the Edsall-Spanos debacle season, the team wasn’t beating any FBS squad. They were 1-11, a far cry from the 6-7 product Connecticut put out last year. But this campaign so far is much more resemblant to the 2021 team.
They lost to NC State, a team that was just out of the top-25 in most ratings, by only 10 points. With this score slightly outperforming projections, many thought UConn was setting themselves up for another solid year. The issue? NC State appears to be a lot less talented than many thought, now No. 53 in ESPN’s FPI ratings.
The next week they played Georgia State in Atlanta, a matchup that they needed to win to set the tone for the rest of the year. At the very least, it needed to be close. In an absolute dismantling, UConn was destroyed 35-14. Their offensive struggles became particularly apparent in a scoreless first half and the once-vaunted defense defended the QB run like Darren Grainger covered himself in Vaseline.
The FIU game at home provided little additional comfort. The team went down 24-3 at the half, but came back late in thrilling fashion in the fourth quarter. The Panthers ultimately held on thanks to a penalty and a subsequent fourth down try that fell just short. The effort to get back into the game seems great until you realize that FIU hasn’t scored a second half point in four of their five games.
Connecticut then made themselves very generous hosts to No. 18 Duke, who cleared out a sparsely-populated Rentschler Field quickly. UConn held on for a 7-0 deficit after a quarter, but were down by 27 at halftime. They managed a garbage-time touchdown, but all it did was slightly improve the final score.
“If you want to, hang in there,” Mora told fans during his weekly presser. “If you want to understand where this program was, understand that I think I know what I’m doing and it’s a very hard road… expectations [based on last year] had probably got out of hand… I would tell fans I understand their skepticism.”
But should we be expecting this much of a reversal from last year’s pleasant surprise? After winning six games, UConn marketed this season as being “The Reload.” Advertising the team as such indicates that they believed that they could at least stay stable. However, this season has hardly been a reload. Perhaps a more appropriate moniker for the team would have been “The Regression” if we had known all along that the team would take steps backwards.
Now, as the losses mount, the Huskies are losing players left and right. Along with Carter’s end-of-season departure to Michigan State and Houston’s transfer, RB Brian Brewton “quit the team” a few weeks back, according to Mora. Now, from last year’s RB room that carried the team’s offense remains only CT’s own Victor Rosa. Of the team’s carries by backs (including DT Jelani Stafford’s three rushes), Rosa accounts for around 43%. At 35%, Houston wasn’t far off, especially when you consider his receiving touchdown and four catches on the season. Houston was the starter, so why would he leave?
Perhaps some of this decline has to do with the offseason loss of EJ Barthel, the Huskies’ RB coach who left for Nebraska. Was he a driving force in keeping this offense – and RB unit – together?
Regardless of what has been lost or who is in the portal, there’s nothing for the team to do but to put the losses in the rearview mirror and focus on what’s in front of them. But they need to do something differently.
Maybe a start is putting in the quarterback who won six games last year. Zion Turner was QB2 to start last season, and when Roberson tore his ACL, Turner was thrown into the fire. Though the team ran a ground-centric offense, he minimized his errors and got the job done. There is no other eligible QB on the team who has recorded one FBS win (season starter Joe Fagnano is hurt, but did beat UMass while at FCS Maine). With the season in serious danger of completely going by the wayside, maybe it’s time to try somebody who’s been proven to succeed. Mora has indicated hesitancy to do this though. Or perhaps they should take more offensive risks.
“We’ve got to be efficient and explosive in the passing game,” Offensive coordinator Nick Charlton told CT Insider before the team’s first game last year. “We’re not going to call it passively. We’ve got to call it aggressively. That’s in the pass game and the run game.”
With so much going on in the run and screen-pass game and not much doing in the deep passing department before third and long, maybe it’s time to go to that aggression that Charlton promised. Granted, the receivers aren’t getting as much separation as a quarterback would like. And in the same interview, Charlton did note his desire to match the play calling to the players on the roster. But the lack of big plays – as demonstrated by the team’s 29 first half yards against Duke – is frightening. Whatever is happening now clearly isn’t working. Something needs to change and it needs to happen soon.