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November 21, 2012

Preview: Huskies have struggled

Fans of the University of Connecticut football team were expecting something different. Just two years removed from a Big East Conference title and a trip to a BCS bowl game (Fiesta), the Huskies returned 15 starters, so it was logical to assume an improvement on last season's 5-7 record.

It hasn't gone as expected, but the Huskies can return to a bowl game by winning their final two games -- at Louisville Saturday and at home against Cincinnati the following week. That's a tall task, to be sure.

UConn (4-6, 1-4) is coming off a 24-17 victory over Pittsburgh two weeks ago (the Huskies had a bye last week). That was UConn's first Big East victory. In fact, the Huskies had scored just 33 total points (and none in the second half) in the four games prior to beating Pitt, and they allowed USF to snap a six-game losing streak three weeks ago.

The blame for UConn's poor record lies with an anemic offense, especially the lack of a running game, which was expected to be a strength. The Huskies are averaging just 87.0 rushing yards per game, which is 115th in the country. They are 107th in the country in total offense (320.6 ypg) and 116th in scoring (17.3 ppg). The passing offense is much better -- 233.6 ypg, 59th in the country -- especially given that QB Chandler Whitmer is constantly having to dodge rushers. UConn is allowing 2.8 sacks a game, tied for 101st in the country.

There's nothing wrong with the defense, however. UConn is allowing just 107.6 rushing ypg, 15th in the country, and 296.2 total ypg, ninth in the country. The Huskies lead the Big East in both categories. They also are playing good pass defense, allowing 188.6 ypg, 19th in the country. Opponents are averaging 18.4 points a game, 18th in the country.

Turnovers have been a problem. UConn's turnover margin is minus-1.20, 112th in the country.
"It's frustrating because you know we fight for everything we get," Whitmer said of the turnovers. "And we've been doing it really almost all year.... It's tough."

Said second-year coach Paul Pasqualoni, whose seat is getting hot: "You just can't have that in tight games."

OFFENSE
Whitmer (6-1, 190, So.), a highly touted transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College, is completing 59.9 percent of his passes (185 of 309) and averaging 232.8 yards a game. But he's thrown 14 interceptions as opposed to just eight for TDs. As noted above, he's under constant pressure and has run 55 times for minus-12.6 ypg.

Sophomore tailback Lyle McCombs (5-8, 166), who ran for 1,151 yards as a redshirt freshman last season, isn't having as much success this season. He's run for 667 yards and is averaging 3.5 yards per carry, 74.1 ypg. He's rushed for five TDs. He's also caught 20 passes and is averaging 20 receiving yards per game.

There's a big dropoff after McCombs, with freshman Max DeLorenzo (5-11, 213) averaging 14.9 rushing ypg.
The team's leading receiver is sophomore Geremy Davis (6-1, 214) with 37 catches (55.6 ypg, one TD). Next is senior Nick Williams (5-10, 184) with 28 catches (29.6 ypg). Senior tight end Ryan Griffin (6-6, 247) has 26 catches (39.9 ypg), but five of them have gone for TDs.
Williams is a dangerous punt returner. He's averaging 13.47 yards per return, 16th in the country, and has returned two for TDs, including an 80-yarder against Pitt.

The O-line has been abysmal, failing to open holes for the running game and failing to protect the QB.
Junior Chad Christen is 11 for 18 on FG attempts, with a long of 50 yards. He's only 2 for 7 outside of 40 yards, however.

DEFENSE
The defense is led by sophomore LB Yawir Smallwood with 10 tackles a game, tied for 18th in the country, and 13 tackles for a loss, tied for 27th in the country. Senior LB Sio Moore (6-2, 229) also has 13 TFL, and he has seven sacks, tied for 32nd in the country. Senior DE Trevardo Williams (6-2, 233), who led the Big East with 12.5 sacks last season, has 8.5 this season, again leading the league. He has 10 TFL, tied for 68th in the country. The team's other LB, senior Jory Johnson (6-1, 227) has 75 tackles, second on the team.

Senior cornerback Dwayne Gratz (6-0, 198) leads the secondary with three interceptions (tied for 39th in the country), one of which he returned 37 yards for a TD. The Huskies have five INTs in all.

Junior Cole Wagner is averaging 40.3 yards a punt, but his net is 35.35 a punt, 93rd in the country.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Williams returning punts and Smallwood, Moore, Williams and Johnson on the defense.

TEAM STRENGTH
Defense.

TEAM WEAKNESS
Offense.

COACHING
Pasqualoni, 63, is in his 21st season as a college head coach, having served previously at Western Connecticut (five seasons, 28-13) and Syracuse (14 seasons, 107-59-1). He took the Orange to nine bowl games, winning six. Overall he is 144-85-1.

ALL-TIME SERIES
The Cards and Huskies have met eight times, with UofL holding a 5-3 advantage. The Cards are 3-1 at home against UConn.

BOTTOM LINE
UofL should win, but because of its stout defense, UConn could give the Cards a hard time.

FAST FACTS
There are three UConn products on the Indianapolis Colts -- RB Donald Brown, LB Scott Lutrus and DB Darius Butler.


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