BY JOHN F. SILVER
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Left tackle Jimmy Bennett usually is one of the fastest guys to dress in the locker room after the game.
After the Huskies 10-7 loss to N.C. State on Saturday, the 6-8, 300-pound linemen paused to think.
How did that just happen?
Coaches and players like to put on a united team front. It's not nice to single out particular units and sides of the ball. Football is a team effort. But, Bennett knew what everyone else at Rentschler Field knew. The defense was great, giving up 10 points, 258 yards and forcing nine punts. That unit did its job.
This one is on the offense, and that starts with the offensive line.
UConn committed four turnovers, punted eight times, and gained only 239 yards on 59 plays in the loss. The Huskies are 1-1 despite having given up only 10 points all year and 317 yards in two games. UConn couldn't run the ball, couldn't move the ball, and was hopelessly off in a frustrating loss.
Bennett, coming out of a quiet and shocked locker room, is trying to figure out how a team known for its pounding run game is suddenly soft and bullied.
"Coach (Pasqualoni) was talking after the game and it was dead silent," Bennett said. "A lot shaking their heads. He was upset with the offense and didn’t know why we didn't perform like we were supposed to. It’s a group thing, not just one person or one group, we have to put it together and move the freakin’ ball down the field. We are capable of doing it, we've done it before, we have to work on it.”
The Huskies are in a bit of a crisis point on the offensive line. The Huskies are coming of a season where it gave up 41 sacks and were 177 of 120 in the nation in sacks allowed. It lost two linemen off that line – longtime starters Mike Ryan at left tackle and center Mo Petrus -- and moved longtime coach Mike Foley from offensive line to tight ends coach. In his place, offensive coordinator George DeLeone – a longtime offensive line coach in the NFL and college – moved into the coaching unit position. It is a sign with how crucial DeLeone and head coach Paul Pasqualoni believe the line is. The goal was to develop depth and talent on the offensive line.
So far this season, the depth part is working OK. The Huskies are shuttling in seven players and reconfiguring the line to adjust. The problem is the result.
The reconfigured line isn’t working, and the running game is a mess.
Lyle McCombs, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season, had his second straight pedestrian game with 20 carries for 60 yards. The offensive line struggled in short yardage on Saturday against North Carolina and finished with 35 net yards rushing on 33 carries a paltry 1.1 average. Much of the lost yardage came on sacks so it’s a bit deceiving, but the running produced only 59 yards on 25 carries, hardly much better. The lack of running game put a strain on the offense it couldn’t overcome. The Huskies were always in long passing situations and quarterback Chandler Whitmer began to press and force the ball throwing 15 of 25, but with three interceptions.
The root of UConn’s offensive troubles can be traced back to what was happening up front. North Carolina State had given up 191 yards rushing in a loss to Tennessee a week prior, but was dominant against UConn (1-1).
“We got to block them that’s what we have to do,” Pasqualoni said. “We know who we are blocking, it’s not like we are not prepared, it’s not like it isn’t things we haven’t worked on. The front five and tight ends we have to do a better job of executing stuff.”
Easier said than done. The Huskies start on the line Bennett at left tackle, Kevin
Connecticut's Chandler Whitmer, left, is pressured by North Carolina State's Thomas Teal during the first half of their football game in East Hartford, Conn., on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
Friend at right tackle with right guard Adam Masters and left guard Steve Greene sandwiching center Alex Mateas. They also rotated in guards Gus Cruz at right guard while moving Masters around to tackle. The line never seemed to get on a rhythm and twice Whitmer was tripped by own linemen. Cruz was called for two false starts and there were other missed blocks and opportunities.
“So frustrating, we were shooting ourselves in foot,” Pasqualoni said. “Those are lost plays and lose opportunities. We are just frustrated.”
So what’s really going on?
A frustrated Bennett didn’t have many answers about the lines play. One aspect of the game that bothered Bennett was the inability of the rest of the line to make adjustments. The Huskies appeared slow and unable to deal with a live game. They know the playbook and the assignment and schemes, but struggled to execute it at a fast enough speed.
Bennett called it a lack of effort, but he wasn’t talking physical effort, it was more mental effort.
“It's getting to second level and fixing things,” Bennett said. “It's a matter of getting into the game and recognizing stuff and the speed of the game and getting into that and being able to block at that speed. In practice it is not as fast as it's going to be.”
The Huskies don’t have much time to figure this out. They have road games at Maryland and the Western Michigan and the defense isn’t going to continue shutting opponent s down.
“We have the fullbacks in, we have the double tight formation, we have to be able to run the ball,” Bennett said. “We are working on that in practice…it has to translate. No one is slacking; just some things are breaking down. We have to go out and prove it. “