CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Toasted. Burned. Torched. Gashed.
Pick your own cliché or slang term.
The UConn football team’s secondary suffered all of those and more in Saturday’s 38-18 loss to Virginia.
Given that UConn coach Randy Edsall spent nearly all of his tenure as an assistant coach working with defensive backs, and still paid a great deal of attention to the area as a head coach, the performance stung even more.
Although there are a number of position groups Edsall and his new staff at UConn must worry about as they try to rebuild the Huskies into a contender, shoring up the defensive backfield might be the most paramount. The Huskies can’t allow other teams this season to do what Virginia did to them Saturday.
“I have to find a way to get them to have a little bit more confidence,” Edsall said. “That’s one thing. If you’re a DB (defensive back), you have to think you’re pretty good. You have to be able to play with a little bit of swagger. Having coached that position for many, many years, you can’t play timid back there. You can’t play scared.”
UConn (1-1) didn’t appear too scared initially, but perhaps that feeling did set in as the game progressed.
Holy Cross quarterback Peter Pujals spent much of the opener picking apart the UConn defense before the Huskies, playing a 3-3-5 under first-year defensive coordinator Ryan Crocker, finally clamped down. The clamps never came down in UConn’s second game.
Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert completed 30 of his 40 passes for a school-record 455 yards and three touchdowns. As a team the Cavaliers (2-1) compiled 626 total yards, the sixth-highest total in program history.
In two games this season, UConn has allowed 1,073 total yards. Of those, 813 have come in the air. That puts UConn 129th and last in the country in passing yards allowed (406.2 per game).
Virginia’s Doni Dowling caught a 42-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, getting behind Tre Bell, a senior transfer from Vanderbilt
Virginia’s Olamide Zaccheaus caught a 30-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, getting by Omar Fortt, a true freshman.
And Virginia’s Andre Levrone hauled in a 73-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, getting free from almost all coverage and sprinting by sophomore Marshe Terry for a long score.
Against Virginia, UConn was in a bit of a bind when junior safety Anthony Watkins suffered a concussion early and did not return. What was already an inexperienced secondary became even more so as freshman Ian Swenson replaced him.
Edsall admits that youth is going to something of a factor in the defensive backs’ performance all season but won’t use it as a crutch.
“There’s some things schematically we can do to help ourselves and to help them,” Edsall said. “It’s our job. It’s my job as a head coach to get it straightened out.”
It wasn’t all bad for the UConn DB’s on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Tyler Coyle, a Windsor High graduate, recorded his first career interception.
“It felt great, first one of my career,” Coyle said. “I was excited. Still, we had a bad game. It doesn’t mean much right now.”
Both Coyle and Edsall said many of the Huskies’ problems in stopping the pass had to do with communication between the players.
“Coming into this week we said we had to communicate a lot. But we really didn’t communicate at all. That’s probably the biggest thing,” Coyle said.
The performance Saturday was hardly all the UConn defensive backs’ fault. The Husky pass rush was almost non-existent, leaving the safeties and cornerbacks having to cover their marks for much longer than an ideal time.
Not to mention the fact that it was Virginia’s ability to run the ball early that set up a lot of the deep throws it was able to connect on later in the day.
UConn linebacker Vontae Diggs tried to explain what he saw as Virginia’s game plan, and why it was successful.
“We knew they were going to come out and run and run and run, try to establish the run game. In today’s world if you can’t run the ball it’s going to be hard to win. And they came out and ran the ball pretty darn well, I’ll tell you that,” Diggs said.
“They dinked and dunked, how Tom Brady plays sometimes. You hit a slant there, hit a hitch there and then go over the top. And we didn’t rally the way we were supposed to rally,” Diggs said.
And the defeat was hardly all on the defense. After all, UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs had both a red zone interception and a red zone fumble in the early going, perhaps dooming the Huskies to defeat with those two plays alone.
But even as the UConn offense finally got in gear, the defense continued to have trouble finding its footing.
“I think there’s some guys back there playing on their heels. And you can’t play on your heels back there. You can’t,” Edsall said.
If the Huskies find a way to stay on their toes, perhaps they won’t be burned again.