The UConn defense is a prideful bunch.
The moniker “Solve your problems with aggression” is not only a way that the team plays, it's a way the unit lives.
The Huskies, under the two years that coordinator Don Brown has run the defense, have played with reckless abandon and fury. They talk a big game – the goal is a top 10 defense – and for a lot of this season they played a big game.
Then Syracuse happened.
The Huskies gave up 511 yards of offense, 253 yards on the ground and did not record a sack or a turnover in a 40-10 loss. Sure, the offense continues to play terribly, but for a unit that lives on being one of the best in the country the sight of Alec Lemon with 166 yards receiving and big plays all over the place isn't something the Huskies take lightly.
UConn left Syracuse and went into the bye week a bruised team at 3-5, and with bruised egos all over that defense. UConn sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood said the defenses foul mood in the days after the game lingered.
“We didn't take it well at all," Smallwood said Tuesday. “We saw that we just made a little mistake here and there. We adjusted on our week off and corrected those mistakes."
The Huskies defense in fact is trending down this season. UConn has given up 100 yards rushing in each of its last three games and the big play and stifling defense of early in the season have disappeared. The defense is still good, but it has had a penchant for giving up big plays and is not putting the kind of pressure on the opposing quarterback that it did early. With South Florida on tap and the explosive B.J. Daniels at quarterback for the Bulls, defense is a big concern.
Smallwood, who was national defensive player of the week earlier this season, is leading thew Big East in tackles at 83 and is ninth nationally. He had 10 tackles and two tackles for a loss against Syracuse, but the Huskies never did sack Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib or create a turnover.
Part of what's happening to the Huskies defense is the loss of stud defensive end Jesse Joseph, who went out against Maryland with a torn Achilles injury. The other is the fact that teams have adjusted to the blitzing and pressure. Trevardo Williams has 7 ½ sacks and leads the Big East, but his pace has slowed tremendously. Smallwood has also seen the production tail off slightly.
“A lot of that has been based on how teams are starting to play our defense,” Smallwood said. “We are seeing screens and plays for the quarterback to get (the ball) out of his hands and we aren't creating turnovers like before...I feel like this defense we have to keep running to the football and turnovers will come to us.”
UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni isn't worried about the sacks, turnovers or tackles for a loss. In the end it comes down to the scoreboard and the Huskies are averaging a good enough 17.88 points per game allowed.
“I think that for me, I'm looking for every snap on defense being an efficient snap on defense, three yards or less,” Pasqualoni said. “When you look at overall defense this year, the efficiency part is really good. We need to eliminate a couple of big plays, last game (against Syracuse) we had one (big play) at the end of half and one at start of third quarter.”
The Huskies will have the work cut out for them this week against a South Florida team that runs the read-option, a dangerous offense that has the quarterback make a decision after the snap whether to had it off or run with it. Daniels remains one of the more explosive players in the country out of this set and it is a major concern. The Huskies also haven't defended the read option well this season. Quarterback Perry Hills of Maryland had a lot of success using it in the fourth quarter against the Huskies and Nassib and the Orange gashed UConn in the run game with it.
“It seems to me, and I don't think it is just unique to us, this is a general statement and it's an accurate statement; the zone play, there are more big plays out of the zone plays generally then there are out of others schemes,” Pasqualoni said. “When you have a good quarterback who reads it, and account for the quarterback as well, it makes the defense more vulnerable.”
Daniels is the kind of player who can wreck a game plan. If the Huskies lose contain out of the pocket he can go for big gains. Daniels has passed for 1,876 yards and rushed for 411 this season. The UConn defense knows his strengths.
“His athleticism,” linebacker Jory Johnson said. “He has a knack for making plays and if you aren't sound on him he can beat you. He isn't a traditional drop back guy. He can make big plays if you are not keyed in on him. Last year against us he broke a scramble, it was just a regular drop back play and he scrambled for a touchdown. He can hurt you with his legs and that's what's most dangerous about him, his athleticism.”
The Huskies are 3-5, 0-3 in the Big East and are facing an equally desperate team in South Florida, which is 2-6, 0-4 and on a six-game losing streak. The season isn't over for either of these teams just yet, but, it's getting close for both.
“We want to make the most out of the last four games and we still have a chance to go to a bowl game,” Johnson said. “We are trying to take it one week at a time."