Paul Pasqualoni began his major college coaching career at Syracuse University in 1987, and he became the head coach in 1991. He held the job until after the 2004 season, seeing plenty of success along the way. Now, however, he will be across the sidelines at the helm of a Connecticut squad looking for a marquee win in 2011.
Coach P's team has an old-school feel and look to it, as they try to establish the run and play tough defense week-in, week-out. The philosophy is a winning one, but the Huskies enter the game at 3-5 on the year and losers of three of their last four contests.
Pasqualoni's old team is faring better at 5-3, but coming off of a surprise loss to Teddy Bridgewater and U of L. Both teams need a win to get back on track, with victory meaning a second-straight bowl berth for the Orange and a confidence builder for the Huskies.
A Classic Husky Offense
UConn runs as close to a pro-style offense as any school in the Big East, specializing in traditional two-WR sets and the I-formation. The difference this season is that the Husky running attacks is a youthful one. Freshman Lyle McCombs is a talented running back who has taken the reigns of the offense in stride despite just a 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame. He enters the game with the second-most yards of any rusher in the conference, trailing only Pittsburgh's Ray Graham (before the knee injury). McCombs has above-average vision and veteran patience in the hole all while he consistently finishes runs by falling forward. His increased workload has not slowed him over the last month, and McCombs continues to average over 100 yards per game on the ground. The rookie is even solid in blitz-pickup, though he allowed a sack last week against Pitt.
At the helm for the Huskies is John McEntee, who may be more known for his trick shot videos on You Tube than for his actual quarterbacking. He does possess some down-the-field skills, but he is far from a comfortable pocket-passer. The junior does have a solid roll-out game as well as good arm strength, but he is not very mobile and doesn't set up his receivers as a scrambler the way SU saw with Geno Smith and Bridgewater over the last two weeks. On top of that, McEntee has not thrown for more than 193 yards in each of the last three weeks. Last week, freshman Scott McCummings saw about 10 plays as the quarterback in order to spark the running game in a Wild Cat-themed look. He did attempt one pass that went for a 9-yard completion.
On the outside, there is not a plethora of talent. Kashif Moore is the biggest threat in terms of finding the end zone, and he is the only player on the roster that resides in the Big East top 10 for receiving yards. Isiah Moore leads the team with 28 catches and Ryan Griffin may be the best all-around tight end in the league. The only other player on the team with more than seven catches on the year is McCombs, who has 12 grabs. The minimal stats are not a surprise on such a run-oriented team that usually trots just a pair of receivers out there on a given play.
The big uglies are an experienced group, as not a single starter has less than three seasons of college experience under his belt. Though seasoned, the tackles are tall and not very athletic. Pitt's pass-rushers breezed by the pair of 6-foot-5 lineman on the way to six sacks, but the unit was able to produce in the run game, as usual. McCombs ended up with 125 yards, but the game situation made UConn one-dimensional. The offensive line gets stronger as you go inside, as center Moe Petrus continues to anchor the group as a redshirt-senior.
Huskies D can be Dominant
The Connecticut defense is a much more balanced group compared to the offense. The front-seven is of high-quality and the secondary can match up with most receiving corps. The unit is ranked ninth nationally against the run, allowing less than 23 points per game in the process.
The defensive line is the bread winner of the defense. For UConn, it stats up front in easily the most talented group of athletes among those wearing a "C" on their helmet. It starts in the middle with Kendall Reyes – arguably the best defensive lineman in the Big East. He presents a plethora of problems for an offense, mainly because of his quick first-step and seemingly easy penetration. Reyes will likely receive a first-round grade once the NFL Draft evaluation process is completed. The senior is not alone up front in terms of top-notch talent. Defensive ends Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams have combined for 8 ½ tackles for loss and 6 ½ sacks thus far. Williams is a speedy edge presence while Joseph is an up-the-field rusher. Twyon Martin and a few other athletic big men also serve in the rotation.
The linebackers that UConn sport on Saturdays are also a pretty athletic group, featuring an emerging freshman star in Yawin Smallwood. Though he will make the occasional bonehead play, his athleticism is on display more times than not while racking up tackles. Jory Johnson leads the team with 70 tackles which also ranks third in the Big East, but he is a bit of a liability in pass coverage as most of the unit is. Sio Moore flanks Smallwood as well, and he may be the best blitzer on the team as evidenced by his 10 ½ stops behind the line of scrimmage.
At the back end, the Huskies rely heavily on man coverage. The goal of any Pasqualoni-led unit is to limit the run first, and this unit does all it can on the way to their top-notch ranking. That means the secondary is often left out of position against the play-action pass, which was the Achilles' heel of the defense in the loss to the Panthers. To make matters more risky for the unit, all four starters are aggressive. Cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Byron Jones are good tacklers, and often don't allow receivers to stack them down-the-field. Jerome Junior has been steady as a tackler, but fellow safety Ty-Meer Brown is the most dynamic of the group. He has a pair of interceptions on the year and can come up and lay a big hit as well.
When Syracuse has the ball, establishing the running game will be a must. Even against a unit that dares you to chuck it down the field, Antwon Bailey and company have got to get going early on in order to dictate the pace. If there is any team ill-equipped to play from behind it is the UConn Huskies considering their lack of a passing game in big spots. Ryan Nassib should be able to get into an early rhythm against man coverage, but the play-action pass needs to be utilized more in the offense. The line will need to protect him consistently, though it will be the key matchup of the afternoon. If Nick Provo can once again attack the seams, which has been a point of vulnerability for the Connecticut defense, things will become easier for the wideouts to make a bigger impact than they have of late.
SU's defense will likely come out in an attacking fashion to try and limit McCombs as much as possible, in an effort to avoid an early hole that Louisville exposed. When the Huskies have the ball, the Orange should have a clear advantage in athleticism, talent and from a play-making perspective. The thought was similar to that heading into the Tulane and Louisville games, and looked how that turned out. My bet is that the unit will finally put a whole game together against an immobile quarterback and predictable, although efficient and powerful, running game.
Nassib rebounds from a tough day against Louisville with some opportune shots down the field after Bailey is established fairly well on the ground. A quick and efficient start similar to the one Nathaniel Hackett engineered against USC earlier in the year would prove critical on Saturday.
The defense will get after McEntee on a regular basis, all while allowing McCombs to get his yardage. Limiting the big plays will once again be a key, and SU finally makes a team move the ball in a methodical fashion. Griffin, the big tight end, worries me over the middle and in the flats but he won't be a difference maker without help.
Syracuse 21, Connecticut 13