It’s best not to overreact to one game. That’s a fundamental rule in this racket.
Seriously, it’s one game. It doesn’t make or break a season, certainly not a program.
Oh, never mind. An exception to that fundamental rule can be made here, where we find UConn football after its 35-14 loss at Georgia State, not from a power conference but a “group of five” program the Huskies made to look, in coach Jim Mora’s words on the UConn Sports Network Postgame Show (97-9 ESPN), “like the freaking ’85 Bears.”
Mora wasn’t unhinged, but sounded a lot like his father did after disastrous NFL losses, spitting words like “pitiful” in listing his team’s shortcomings. The Huskies’ biggest perceived strength, offensive line and the running game, was just that, 31 rushes for 50 yards. Take out Victor Rosa’s 71-yard run in the opener, and a few unintended chunks gained by scrambling quarterbacks, and that’s the baseline average for the running game so far. When you can’t run it, you can’t throw it, and vice versa.
After quarterback Joe Fagnano left with a shoulder injury, Ta’Quan Roberson completed 19 of 30 for 216 yards and two touchdowns, two fourth quarter drives. “Empty yards,” Mora called them. It looks as if Roberson, the transfer from Penn State, should be the one starting, but that can’t be taken for certain until we see how he plays as a starter, in a presumably winnable game at home against Florida International next Saturday.
No, Mora, unlike some of his predecessors, wasn’t trying to put any kind of spin on this, hasn’t looked for silver linings after loses, even when they’re there. There were none in Atlanta.
“That’s not the team I see in meetings and every day in practice,” he said. “But unfortunately, that’s the team we are right now. The scoreboard tells the story of who you are.”
A week ago, the scoreboard told a slightly different story, the eyeballs a very different story. UConn’s 24-14 loss to NC State could be perceived as a respectable effort, and when Mora said during the week that his team was better than last year, no one argued it.
The last thing this program needed in this space and time was to lay an egg like this. Let’s point out that, tempting as it is to believe, conferences do not make decisions about new members based on one game, one season, or the assumption a certain coach will be there long term. If a team could simply play its way into the big time, Appalachian State has slayed, or scared the daylights out of enough giants, North Carolina this week, to have joined a power conference ages ago. The Sun Belt, to be fair, contains programs like James Madison, which beat Virginia on Saturday, and Marshall, which has beaten UConn in its last two bowl games, including last December.
A last second loss, however excruciating, would have been different; the Panthers were favored at home. But the optics of losing like this to Georgia State are terrible, much worse than a half-filled, off-campus stadium, and it gives aid, comfort and new ammo to those looking for any chance to mock UConn football, and those who think UConn should decline a power conference and all that money, even if an offer came its way, to stay, in the basketball-centric Big East.
So, yes, UConn’s sudden, shocking regression back to the Randy Edsall 2.0 and Lou Spanos days blows up the optimism, good cheer, even excitement that Mora has brought to Storrs. Given the timing, this was the worst of his nine losses.
The Huskies, who have generally looked well-coached under this staff, were not only ineffective, but inept. George State lost seven defensive starters to transfers last year and gave up 35 points to Rhode Island last week, but UConn’s offense made the Panthers look, just to avoid repetition, like the ’86 Giants. Mora mentioned play calling. This included a running play on a 3rd-and-17 near midfield, followed by a short pass on 4th-and-15 and a punt on 4th-and-2 when down 28-0.
The Huskies’ defense looked good in spots in the first half, but ultimately could only chase another explosive quarterback, Darren Grainger, who rushed for 142, including a 65-yard TD, and threw for 144, in futility.
And there were more of those “self-inflicted wounds” that killed any momentum UConn began to generate, a muffed punt by Brett Buckman in the second quarter was a killer, a missed field goal by Joe McFadden was ill-timed. And penalties, 8 for 65 yards, have yet to be coached out of UConn’s system.
When the oddsmakers set the Huskies’ over-under at 4 1/2 wins some wondered what they were thinking, but look at the games on the schedule, how much better Duke or JMU have looked, and, blazes, even UMass has looked, and there could be rough sledding to get to five wins.
Okay, we’ve laid out the bad, the worse and the ugly. We’ve reacted, maybe overreacted, to one awful game. Maybe its not as bad as it appears. Maybe the season isn’t over, and UConn’s aspirations to be an entertaining and relevant football show, can yet come true. Maybe UConn, behind Roberson, will generate some offense and beat FIU – now an absolute must – and begin to pick up the shards of this Saturday night debacle in Atlanta. The Huskies, as Mora said, have some “soul searching” to do this week. They need to be a lot better than this.