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UConn scrambling to keep bowl hopes alive

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

It’s déjà vu all over again for the Connecticut Huskies. That’s not a good thing.

One year ago, in the ninth week of the season, the Huskies were 3-5 heading into a home game against East Carolina. When the two American Athletic Conference teams meet Saturday in Greenville, N.C., only the location and the stadium will be different. UConn, with its much higher expectations this season, is 3-5 again and needing three wins in the last four games of the regular season to become bowl eligible.

That makes Saturday’s game against the Pirates the most important game of the season. If UConn (1-4 AAC) can manage its first road win of the season, the game against Temple (5-3, 3-1) at Rentschler Field on Nov. 4 then becomes the most important game.

You get the idea. UConn closes out the regular season against old rival Boston College (3-4, 0-4 ACC) on Nov. 19 and Tulane (3-4, 0-3) on Nov. 26.

This may not seem important to any of the teams ranked in the Top 25 or positioning themselves for College Football Playoff. For coach Bob Diaco and UConn – both the program and the university – the team’s final record and the need for consecutive bowl appearances are the most visible indicators of progress.

From the outside, and possibly from the inside, anything less will be perceived as a step back.

That’s the last thing UConn football needs right now.

26 DEC 2015:       UCONN's RB Arkeel Newsome (22) during the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl between the UConn Huskies and Marshall Thundering Herd at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg FL.   (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

26 DEC 2015: UCONN RB Arkeel Newsome (22) during the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl between the UConn Huskies and Marshall Thundering Herd at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

The Huskies reached the St. Petersburg Bowl last season by beating East Carolina, defeating Tulane, and then pulling a monster 20-7 upset of Houston at home. That’s the last time UConn won consecutive games. It really didn’t matter that UConn lost to Temple 27-3 before falling to Marshall 16-10 in the bowl game. The significant step was reaching a bowl game in Diaco’s second season.

With 18 returning starters and the optimism created by Diaco, there was good reason to believe that UConn would be improved this season and perhaps reach a higher-level bowl game.

As usual, defense was supposed to lead the way for the Huskies. Senior safety Obi Melifonwu thought he saw it all coming together in August.

“We pride ourselves on our defense,” he said. “We believe that we can be the best defense in the country and that’s what we strive for every day.”

The Huskies do rank 26th in the nation in rushing defense (124 yards per game) this season, which is second only to Houston (98.5) among teams from the AAC, but UConn led the AAC last season in scoring defense and was second in total defense. The Huskies have slipped to seven in scoring defense and eighth in total defense. UConn has fallen from first to last in pass defense in the conference, giving up 100 yards more per game.

Last Saturday, the Huskies gave up a 13-point lead against UCF and were held scoreless in the second half on the way to a 24-16 loss. Those things aren’t supposed to happen to UConn in East Hartford.

“We are going to mourn this sickening loss for 24 hours, just like we celebrate for 24 hours, we mourn for 24 hours and then we are going to move on,” Diaco said.

“[A] 3-5 [record] is not a representation of the work, the investment, the improvement that we have made as a program, that is the worst part. Winning these games is the main thing, I got that, I am not an idiot, I understand that but these guys have so much, they have come so far, the staff is trying as hard as it possibly can and in the games, in five of them it hasn’t been enough and I take full accountability for that.”

Before the season Diaco promised a more entertaining offense with more UConn points. That hasn’t happened. The Huskies are averaging just over 20 points – dead last in the AAC – and only three points per game more than last season. It’s hard to believe because running back Arkeel Newsome is one of the most explosive runners in the conference and wide receiver Noel Thomas is fourth in the nation with 9.5 receptions per game, 12th in the nation with 115.4 yards per game.

Diaco has two of the best tight ends in the conference in Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom, but they have been horribly under-used as receivers. They have 16 receptions combined.

“We have tried to get them more involved,” Diaco said of the tight ends. “You saw a new package and new formation in the [UCF] game, it wasn’t overly productive, but there are passes off those plays to the tight ends and they were targeted a bit.

“They are good players, Tommy made some plays and Alec made some plays and I thought the tight ends as a whole had a nice game. We need to continue to grow that.”

That overall lack of imagination mixed with poor performances in the red zone have translated into an offense that statistically resembles last season. It took seven games for UConn to score in the first quarter and that was a field goal by Bobby Puyol. Against UCF last Saturday, UConn ran 25 plays from inside the UCF 22 but had only three Puyol field goals and a 3-yard touchdown run by Newsome to show for that field position.

The Huskies had finally responded to Diaco’s call to start the game faster, but despite moving the ball, the lack of point production is worrisome.

“It is unacceptable to make that many trips to the red zone and come up with so few points so we have to figure that out,” quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. “We have to hammer down on how we are going to score touchdowns rather than field goals.”

Syracuse's Zaire Franklin (4) upends UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) during the first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

Syracuse’s Zaire Franklin (4) upends UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) during the first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

Diaco knows a lot is at stake. It only starts with a bowl bid. If the Huskies can’t close the season with some wins, UConn’s lack of improvement will be scrutinized. That’s when Diaco’s status as head coach could be called into focus – after just three seasons.

“You put a finger in the crack and then another one springs,” Diaco said. “So obviously this week, the red zone becomes something that we worry about. We will do something about it each day.”

*

Here are some key comparisons to last season, showing where UConn ranked in the AAC in 2015 and where the Huskies rank through eight conference games this season. Draw your own conclusions:

Scoring offense (points per game)

2015: 11th (17.2)

2016: 12th (20.2)

Scoring defense (ppg)

2015: 1st (19.5)

2016: 7th (25.9)

Total offense (yards)

2015: 11th (310.3)

2016: 11th (369.5)

Total defense (ypg)

2015: 2nd (355.1)

2016: 8th (413.8)

Rushing offense (ypg)

2015: 10th (124.8)

2016: 11th (131.2)

Rushing defense (ypg)

2015: 6th (165.8)

2016: 2nd (124.0)

Pass offense: (ypg)

2015: 11th (185.5)

2016: 6th (238.2)

Pass defense (ypg)

2015: 1st (189.3)

2016: 12th (289.8)

Turnover margin

2015: 4th (plus-9)

2016: 9th (minus-1)

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