A Dismal Opener To A Crucial Season

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EAST HARTFORD — Dismal. Yes, dismal. It's the one word that springs to mind. In fact, it's the only word that springs to mind.

If Paul Pasqualoni and the UConn Huskies were bent on setting a strong, positive tone from the start of the 2013 football season, well … dismal.

There were big, empty holes in the Rentschler Field stands for the season opener Thursday night. There were big, empty holes in UConn's game in a 33-18 loss to a team from Maryland led by a former UConn coach.

That team, of course, isn't Maryland coached by Randy Edsall. The Terps will be at the Rent in two weeks and heaven knows how ugly that one might get. Heck, Edsall — the Great Deserter — might even get cheered. No, this god-ugly opening loss would be to Rob Ambrose's Towson Tigers.

Your FCS Towson Tigers.

“They're a very good I-AA team,” Pasqualoni said afterward. “We clearly stated that this would be the toughest opener at least since I've been here. It proved to be that.

“We had a tough, physical camp. We were really looking forward to playing. That kind of makes it really disappointing.”

Having said all that, this was the worst loss of the Pasqualoni era.

Any of the other bad ones are all tied for No. 2.

Pasqualoni was measured in his words, but his face screamed volumes. He looked a thousand years old after this one. He looked like Dead Coach Walking, either that or someone stole the family dog.

The last time the Huskies lost to a I-AA team was against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 17, 2001. Forget about Middle Tennessee. We got late word Middle Tennessee actually moved up from I-AA in 2001 and the last time was Eastern Washington also in 2001. At any rate, Aug. 30, 2013, there is this distinct feeling, even after only one game that the UConn football program is in the middle of nowhere.

Here's one bet that you could have fried an egg on Warde Manuel's head after this one. Heck, the UConn athletic director could have picked any number of spots around the stadium to start a bonfire and not burned a soul.

The announced crowd was 30,689 in the 40,000-seat stadium, yet even at its highest point it seemed like 3,000 or 4,000 fewer. Certainly, midway through the fourth quarter there were barely 12,000. And even as the Huskies scored on a late touchdown pass from Chandler Whitmer to Shakim Phillips to cut the Towson lead to eight, the long line of red taillights was all you could see pulling out of East Hartford.

The Huskies got Towson to go three and out, burned all their timeouts and with one last chance Brian Lemelle fumbled the punt with just under three minutes left. Game. Set. Dismal.

There were some lusty boos as early as the second quarter when Towson took a 13-7 lead on Sterlin Phifer's second touchdown.

There were no boos at the final whistle because only the band and the players' families were left.

In his post-game comments, Pasqualoni went directly to his run defense. He said he knew Terrance West was tough. He said he knew the Towson offensive line was experienced. He also talked about how opponents only ran for 2.7 yards a carry last year. Well, Towson ran for 4 yards a pop on the way to 201 yards on the ground.

“One of the strengths of our team here for the past couple of seasons has been our run defense,” Pasqualoni said. “[Terrance] West himself had 156 yards. That was very, very disappointing. We didn't play well there.

“I don't know of an area where we did play well in. The two turnovers hurt us. One was a picked ball [Whitmer was intercepted by defensive tackle Jon Desir on receiver screen pass]. Another was a freshman punt returner. I put him in there. I'm the one who made him a punt returner. That's a really, really tough job for a freshman. That's not on Brian Lemelle. That's on me.”

The Huskies' play in the trenches, to be sure, was unimpressive. Whitmer, for example, was sacked on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. Tackle Xavier Hemingway, who played in place of Kevin Friend because of a previously unannounced concussion, was blown away on one of those sacks. Whitmer had time early, but as the game wore on he looked to be under more and more duress.

“I think he had a hard time seeing over the rush,” Pasqualoni said. “He kind of got flushed out of there. There was some penetration in there. I thought as the game went on Chandler had trouble seeing the field.”

Whitmer, for his part, said he didn't have trouble seeing.

On the offensive side of the ball, a big play came in the second quarter when Lyle McCombs was ruled not to have crossed the goal line on a second-quarter carry. The Huskies, who had gone exclusively no-huddle on their spread offensive to that point, huddled. And wouldn't you know it? They were called for an illegal substitution, 12 guys on the field. UConn challenged the call on McCombs, didn't win it and settled for a field goal when it looked as if it would be a sure touchdown.

“Not grabbing that score certainly hurt,” Pasqualoni said.

Yes, there were some unfortunate mistakes.

But read this. On that particular play, center Alex Mateas got blown away by his man and that guy stopped McCombs.

The new spread offense showed a number of interesting wrinkles. Yes, they varied the pace. There were a number of different looks. One the first touchdown pass, Whitmer play-faked out of an I-formation. Phillips faked and went outside. The Towson DB went inside. Shak was wide open for the score. It looked spiffy. There wasn't nearly enough spiffy.

The Huskies finished 110th of 120 teams in the nation last year with an average of 318 yards per game. Well, they finished with 287 in the opener against a I-AA team and the drive chart showed only four drives of 14 netted more than nine yards.

Dismal.

Three of the four top tacklers in the first half were defensive backs. That's never a good sign. Redshirt freshman Obi Melifonwu, who made a diving interception in the first half and showed some real flashes of talent, was one of them. Taylor Mack and Byron Jones looked strong in the first half, too, but they also got burned for huge plays in the second.

When the game mattered, really mattered in the second half the Huskies had a 95-yard touchdown drive down their throats. We can say all the nice things about Towson. We can say all nice things about Ambrose.

But this wasn't Michigan, who'll be coming in September. This wasn't Maryland.

“We're going to take a long look at the film,” Pasqualoni said. “We'll grade it and and move on from there

“Obviously, we didn't play well enough.”

Obviously. And just as obviously all potential changes must be considered.

The only good news is there are still 11 games left.

Or maybe that's the bad news.



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