2011 Season Preview: Conservative Choices And The Connecticut Huskies

While Big East rivals were going with youth and offense in their coaching searches, Connecticut went with experience and defense. Will the conservatism pay off? And is there any hope for the Huskies in 2011 with a new staff and new offensive backfield?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

In 2010, the Connecticut Huskies became italicized. As in, "When Connecticut can make a BCS bowl but Boise State can't, your system is flawed," or "Wait, Connecticut is in the Fiesta Bowl? Connecticut?" UConn became the face of all that is right and wrong with the BCS bowl structure this season. They won the Big East's automatic BCS bid despite an 8-4 record and an F/+ ranking in the 50s, beating West Virginia and Pittsburgh in a three-way tie and snagging the Fiesta Bowl slot opposite Oklahoma. They showed that anybody (in a BCS conference) has a shot at a big-time, high-visibility matchup, which is good, right? Of course, they struggled to sell tickets to the game, they took a financial loss, and they lost by 28 points, giving anti-BCS folks one more bullet in the chamber. Then, as did the other two Big East co-champions, they went about replacing their head coach.

There wasn't as much drama in UConn's coaching change as there were with Pittsburgh and West Virginia -- no double coaching changes, no disastrous, forced "head coach in waiting" arrangements. Randy Edsall resigned to take a "dream job" (his words) at Maryland, and UConn methodically and quietly went about finding his replacement. But while Pitt (the second time around) and WVU hired young, offensively-minded up-and-comers in the coaching ranks, UConn went conservative. They hired an infinitely more experienced, defensive-minded coach in former Syracuse head man Paul Pasqualoni.

Once I realized that Pasqualoni is somehow only 61 years old (my first guess would have been much closer to 70 -- he's been around forever), I warmed to the hire a bit. Though he couldn't quite replicate the success that his predecessor Dick MacPherson found at Syracuse, his profile was probably raised by successor Greg Robinson's struggles. Pasqualoni won 107 games in 14 seasons at The 'Cuse and finished with the best conference record in the fledgling Big East six times. He inherits a team in transition, in a conference in transition. I cannot tell you if this was a good hire, but the thought process -- if the conference's stable of coaches is young and, in some cases, high on offensive potential, then going with experience and defense could pay off -- was one I can defend. So they've got that going for them.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 55
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Michigan 10-30 L 17.0 - 29.9 L
11-Sep Texas Southern
62-3 W 36.0 - (-4.6) W
18-Sep at Temple 16-30 L 25.2 - 29.6 L
25-Sep Buffalo 45-21 W 37.6 - 29.0 W
2-Oct Vanderbilt 40-21 W 23.0 - 32.7 L
8-Oct at Rutgers 24-27 L 17.1 - 35.3 L
23-Oct at Louisville 0-26 L 15.4 - 23.8 L
29-Oct West Virginia 16-13 W 30.4 - 24.0 W
11-Nov Pittsburgh 30-28 W 26.8 - 32.3 L
20-Nov at Syracuse 23-6 W 26.6 - 8.5 W
27-Nov Cincinnati 38-17 W 26.6 - 21.8 W
4-Dec at South Florida 19-16 W 14.3 - 18.7 L
1-Jan vs Oklahoma 20-48 L 18.5 - 32.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.4 63 22.0 35
Adj. Points Per Game 24.2 86 24.1 36

The recipe for winning the Big East, as outlined by Connecticut in 2010: don't lay too many eggs and win your close games. In what ESPN's Brian Bennett has frequently called a "torso" league (no top or bottom, just a giant middle), this makes sense. Don't give games away, make the most of your opportunities, and you too can earn the right to get pummeled by a national power on (or around) New Year's Day! After an 0-2 conference start that included an unimpressive trip to Rutgers and a pummeling at the hands of Louisville, UConn just won. They didn't often look pretty doing so -- only once in the last half of the season did they play what anybody would call an above average offensive game -- but they won, by three points over West Virginia, two points over Pittsburgh and three points again over South Florida. Throw in nice showings against Syracuse and Cincinnati, and voila! Conference title.

In the end, I doubt any UConn fans care that they won a conference title despite being statistically unimpressive in almost every way -- the banner will still say "Big East Champions," and they can obviously tell this Missouri fan that they have been to more BCS bowls in the last 40 years than his team has.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 75 81 71
RUSHING 41 57 37 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 96 96 93 24
Standard Downs 61 90 46 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 84 69 91 19
Redzone 85 90 75
Q1 Rk 53 1st Down Rk 63
Q2 Rk 61 2nd Down Rk 64
Q3 Rk 63 3rd Down Rk 94
Q4 Rk 103

Close your eyes and picture the generic Syracuse offense of the 1980s and 1990s. Are you envisioning high run percentages, slower pace, bruising halfbacks, mobile quarterbacks and play-action bombs? That could be what you are about to see from UConn this season, as Pasqualoni has more-or-less gotten the old band back together. By his side will be offensive coordinator George DeLeone, his former Syracuse O.C. and a coach with 25 years of experience at current or former Big East schools (Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple). Whether he can orchestrate a successful Big East offense in 2011 and beyond remains to be seen, but he should find things to like about the style of his current personnel. The backfield is devoid of experience, but the line is good, and ... let's face it, this personnel wasn't exactly brought to Storrs to run the spread under Edsall.

The Huskies may have gotten the job done in the Big East last year, but they were far from an offensive powerhouse. Jordan Todman (1,695 yards, 5.1 per carry, +4.1 Adj. POE, 14 TD) was a star at running back, and his explosiveness was the best thing UConn had going for it, but he declared early for the NFL draft, leaving a void in the backfield. Meanwhile, no. 2 rusher Robbie Frey (389 yards, 5.2 per carry, +5.1 Adj. POE, 4 TD) elected to finish up his eligibility as a Kutztown Golden Bear. That leaves USC transfer (and part-time fullback) D.J. Shoemate (115 yards, -3.5 Adj. POE) and some youngsters (sophomore Martin Hyppolite, redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs, freshman Max DeLorenzo).

While we're in the backfield, we'll discuss another void: quarterback. Zach Fraser (1,425 yards, 5.5 per pass, 52% completion rate, 5 TD, 6 INT) has graduated, and part-time starter Cody Endres (471 yards, 6.3 per pass, 60% completion rate, 5 TD, 2 INT) was dismissed. That leaves sophomore Michael Box (65 yards, 3.8 per pass, 35% completion, 0 TD, 1 INT), who failed to impress in limited time last season, YouTube sensation Johnny McEntee, and more youngsters (mobile redshirt freshman Scott McCummings, freshman Michael Nebrich).

But enough about the weaknesses; let's talk about what could be a phenomenal offensive line. Three starters return from a line that was extremely well-rounded, ranking in the Top 25 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate. Gigantic left tackle Mike Ryan (6-foot-5, 333 pounds) and senior center Moe Petrus (39 career starts) are both likely all-conference performers (Ryan was first-team last year, Petrus second-team), making the loss of stellar guard Zach Hurd less of an issue. Great lines can make iffy backfields look good. At least, that's the hope if you are a UConn fan (or running back) this year.

Other tidbits:

  • Few receiving duos were targeted more frequently than Michael Smith (615 yards, 13.4 per catch, 54% catch rate, 2 TD) and Kashif Moore (452 yards, 12.6 per catch, 46% catch, 4 TD) in 2010, and both return this fall. They were not particularly efficient options, particularly Moore -- if you are only catching 46% of your targets, you better be averaging about 19 yards per catch. Moore and tight end Ryan Griffin (245 yards, 7.9 per catch, 69% catch rate, 1 TD) will the be wily veterans of the unit this year. Smith is academically ineligible, and the next-best options -- Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones, Jr. -- are redshirt freshmen.
  • The quarterback race is an interesting one, thanks mostly to the diversity involved. McEntee is nothing if not accurate (as YouTube can attest), Box has a strong arm, Nebrich (in for spring) is a lithe athlete, and McCummings is a bigger, more physical runner. DeLeone will certainly have one thing going for them early in the season: they will be completely unscoutable.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 60 77 51
RUSHING 64 64 60 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 60 89 48 63
Standard Downs 48 66 45 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 37 51 30 106
Redzone 17 20 13
Q1 Rk 77 1st Down Rk 53
Q2 Rk 48 2nd Down Rk 44
Q3 Rk 31 3rd Down Rk 66
Q4 Rk 62

Don Brown takes over a Connecticut defense that must replace just two starters, albeit two good ones. Brown was Ralph Friedgen's D.C. at Maryland over the past two years; after a rough first season, the improvement was significant for Brown in year two in College Park.

Maryland's Defense, Last Four Years
Year(s) Def. F/+
Rk
SR+ Rk PPP+ Rk Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Std. Dwns
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Dwns
S&P+ Rk
2007-08 (pre-Brown)
62 89 61 70 79 68 75
2009 68 79 72 57 85 66 99
2010 22 28 32 28 29 23 34

When you see such across-the-board improvement, chances are a talent upgrade was also involved, but things certainly clicked for Brown. If he can oversee similar improvement in Storrs, UConn fans might see the Randy-Edsall-for-Don-Brown trade with Maryland as a decent one.

UConn is significantly experienced, both on the line and in the secondary. UConn boasts of play-making ability at the tackle position that few can match. Kendall Reyes (32.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU) is one of the best in college football, while Twyon Martin (20.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and Shamar Stephen (20.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) are disruptive as well. Unfortunately, the Huskies probably still need an upgrade at the end. They held up alright against run blocking, but they couldn't get to the quarterback. If Jesse Joseph (32.0 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks) wasn't making a play from the end position, nobody was.

There might be more pressure on the line because of the void in the linebacking corps left by the departures of all-conference performer Lawrence Wilson (97.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU) and Scott Lutrus (49.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks). Sio Moore (91.0 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR) is all over the place, but he'll be flanked by a couple of inexperienced battery mates.

Other tidbits:

  • UConn was strong at preventing big plays on passing downs; when combined with the fact that their pass rush wasn't that great, this says very good things about the secondary, particularly the safeties. Jerome Junior (51.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT), Harris Agbor (36.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 PBU) and Mike Lang (32.5 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PBU) are all disruptive forces. Throw in corners Dwayne Gratz (58.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 9 PBU) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (52.5 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PBU), and you've got yourself a potentially strong secondary.
  • Maryland's defense was iffy in the first quarter (71st in Q1 S&P+) and strong the rest of the way (15th in Q2, 11th in Q3, 33rd in Q4). Not to over-generalize, but this suggests that Brown's strengths are in conditioning and adaptation. The gameplan itself might not be wonderful, but Brown evidently adjusts well.

Connecticut's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Fiesta" by R. Kelly? Or The Pogues? Or Gato Barbieri? Or Ween? Or The Charlie Parker Sextet?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 40
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 80
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +12 / +11.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (6, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.3

In games against evenly-matched opponents (i.e. in the Big East), your ability to win close games goes hand-in-hand with your YPP margin. Simply being a little better at turning yards into points can make the difference between a 3-4 conference record and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. UConn's YPP margin was one of the more favorable in the country, and with a new coaching staff and entirely new offensive backfield, it will be difficult for UConn to manage games quite as well. Combine that with poor recruiting rankings and only decent five-year performance averages, and the odds are significantly stacked against the Huskies in the short-term.

Randy Edsall is the only coach Connecticut has had since making the jump to FBS. He leaves behind a program that has succeeded more than should have been expected in its first decade at this level, but the facilities and recruiting base are still somewhat limited. In hiring Pasqualoni, UConn didn't exactly go the 'underdog strategies' route, but they did go with somebody who is familiar with the area and whose style can take advantage of the type of recruits that typically thrive in the northeast. He was a definitively conservative hire, but for this program, that might be alright. Especially if he comes up with a nice "stopping the spread" blueprint.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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