Connecticut Huskies

Davis: Did UConn’s Diaco win more than a game Saturday?

October 08, 2016:  UConn Huskies Head Coach Bob Diaco discusses a call with the Referees as the Cincinnati Bearcats take on the UConn Huskies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire)
Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – We don’t know precisely what Connecticut running back Arkeel Newsome did to lose his starting role Saturday against Cincinnati. All we know is that UConn’s leading rusher this season did something Friday that led coach Bob Diaco to suspend Newsome for the first quarter.

After the game, in his press conference, Diaco would only say that he was going to be “a little coy” with his answer. He didn’t want to call it a “violation of team rules” because he didn’t want “to get the wheels turning.”

Translation: Diaco didn’t want speculation to get out of hand regarding the actual reason. Did he oversleep and miss a team meeting? Did he arrive late to practice? Did he break curfew Friday night? Did he miss bed check? Had he been drinking? Did he have a domestic issue with a girlfriend?

Those things – and many others – have happened to programs across the country, including UConn. Based on Diaco’s elaboration, we’re going to assume it had something to do with being tardy or missing a required obligation at a scheduled time.

“It’s kind of family business,” Diaco said.

“Arkeel is a fantastic young man. He’s made a lot of deposits in his trust bank account. There was no external conversation here. It was only internal. He had a late Friday, a little violation of how we do our business.

“And to keep our culture in tact so that we’re honest and [have] trust . . . in a family you have to have trust. Not that you like everything that happens to you or is said to you in your family and every family member. But you trust what is going to be responded.”

UConn (3-3, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) snapped a two-game losing streak with a 20-9 victory over Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3), combining an impressive defensive performance with some big plays on offense.

You can trust the fact that Newsome played an enormous role. The irony in all of this is how Diaco spent the week stressing that Newsome needed to touch the ball more often. The 5-foot-7 junior may be UConn’s best weapon. He came on the field for UConn’s first drive of the second quarter, took a handoff from quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, and picked up one yard.

At the end of the day, after UConn scored 20 unanswered points, and Newsome could celebrate an AAC victory with his teammates because he finished with 14 carries (one shy of his season high) for 116 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown, but he busted open a 67-yard run in the third quarter that took the Huskies to the Cincinnati 22.

Five plays later Bobby Puyol kicked a 30-yard field goal to give UConn a 17-9 lead.

After the game, UConn officials informed reporters that Newsome would not be answering questions in the interview room. No surprise there. He certainly has that right, even though he was obviously requested so that the media could present his side of the story.

“I had to make a decision I wish I didn’t have to make,” Diaco said. “I wasn’t thinking Friday afternoon I’d have a decision between potentially beating Cincinnati and a teaching moment. I’m going to always choose the teaching moment.”

There’s no reason to doubt Diaco. He seemed genuine when he made that comment. No joking. No forced anecdote to make his point.

UConn officials, when asked to clear up the timing of this unknown incident, said they did not know whether it was related to the afternoon practice or anything that might have happened late at night. Diaco’s words seem to indicate it was the result of being late for practice.

UConn fans should want the truth as well. Most remember the case of running back Lyle McCombs in 2012 when he was charged with second-degree breach of peace after “yelling, pushing and spitting at his girlfriend,” according to police, during an argument outside a residential hall at UConn. That incident happened late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning before the Huskies played that afternoon.

Paul Pasqualoni, head coach at that time, didn’t start McCombs. He was benched for the first quarter. After the game, McCombs apologized for “a mistake.” McCombs also was suspended in January of 2011 after his arrest involving possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was also involved in a fight with another student in February of 2014. That summer, Diaco announced McCombs had been dismissed from the team. It was one of Diaco’s first acts at UConn.

We mention that only as a comparison. There is no indication Newsome is that sort of malcontent. In fact, quite the opposite seems true. The Huskies have to hope it was a one-time thing. Newsome has to realize he could have hurt his team – and his head coach – deeply with this “little violation of business.”

Diaco, in his third season at UConn, is moving into a period of great scrutiny this week. UConn has not produced as expected. After going to a bowl game last year, the Huskies were expected to keep building – not regress. His job could be on the line in the next few weeks.

Even though it seems the Big 12 is going to pass on expansion when conference meetings are held this week, UConn has been viewed as one of the top four schools under consideration. The football program, Diaco and the team’s record collectively form a big part of the puzzle whether expansion comes this year, next year or 10 years from now. UConn must win games, attract bigger crowds, and become a bigger player on the national scene.

These Huskies have been a slow-starting team all season. Falling behind 14-0 or even 10-0 in the first quarter would have been almost suicidal for the Huskies at home.

They rose above it all.

October 08, 2016: The UConn Huskies, coached by Bob Diaco, celebrate after a 59 yard touchdown pass during the first half of a NCAA football game between AAC rivals, the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

October 08, 2016: The UConn Huskies, coached by Bob Diaco, celebrate after a 59 yard touchdown pass during the first half of a NCAA football game between AAC rivals, the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

If Diaco is being straight with us regarding Newsome, Saturday was a great day for the Huskies. If something is revealed later and Diaco wasn’t truthful, he will experience a much higher level of scrutiny.

A loss to Cincinnati would have extended the losing streak to three with a road game against talented South Florida next week. Instead, UConn put together a complete game and beat another Big 12 possibility, topping the Beaarcats for just the third time in 13 tries.

UConn’s defense held the Bearcats to 2 yards rushing on 22 attempts. Two yards. After 18 yards in the first quarter it was all negative for Cincinnati.

Shirreffs threw touchdown passes of 59 yards to Tyraiq Beals and 26 yards to Noel Thomas. Shirreffs wasn’t perfect, but UConn finally incorporated big plays into the Husky offense. That’s as encouraging as the level of play on defense. Thomas caught nine passes for 108 yards. It was his third touchdown of the season. Newsome’s 116 yards rushing marked the first 100-yard rushing effort of UConn’s season.

Link that with the other offensive contributions and there was reason for optimism again at UConn.

That has been a rarity.

“They used the first five weeks – the good, the bad and the ugly – to serve them and improve all of it,” Diaco said of his players. “That’s what we talked about and that’s what our DNA is.”

The second half of the season will tell if the Huskies can sustain that.

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