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October 23, 2013UConn interim head coach T.J. Weist challenged his team after a disappointing 13-10 loss to USF two weeks ago by making certain starting spots open for competition at practice. The move seemed to be especially geared towards the wide receiving corps, who with the exception of Geremy Davis and the injured Shakim Phillips, had a horrible day catching the ball. The unit responded with a much-improved game against Cincinnati despite the lopsided outcome. This week as the team prepares for No. 21 UCF (5-1, 2-0), the competition will only be increased after another failed attempt to attain a win.
"When you're 0-6, it's a competition every day," Weist said. "You can't accept losing under any circumstance."
The Huskies (0-6, 0-2) could make a number of excuses for their below-par performance this season - such as changing head coaches after four games, a switch at quarterback, or even several key injuries - but excuses do not change the fact that this is a team that has struggled in nearly every aspect of the game at some point during the year.
The latest focus is on the defensive line, which has failed to apply adequate pressure on opposing teams' quarterbacks. In six games, UConn has recorded just five sacks total. The line rotation is composed mostly of experienced upperclassmen, but the group has simply not gotten enough pressure thus far.
"We know that's something we need to work on. We've got to work on finishing, generating [a] better pass rush," senior defensive end Tim Willman said.
Although no changes in the starting four are expected, Weist will use competition at practice to encourage improved play from his defensive front. They will have their hands full with a talented Knights' team that came back from a 28-7 deficit in the third quarter to shock No. 8 Louisville 38-35 on a two-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining from Blake Bortles to Jeff Godfrey.
Bortles leads an offensive attack that has scored at least 24 points in every game this year. They rarely turn the ball over, and enter the game ranked No. 9 in the FBS with a 1.2 turnover ratio. Bortles himself has been outstanding, racking up 1,584 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions.
"That's what you're looking for in a quarterback. You're looking for that leadership at the crucial times to either hold a lead or bring you back from any deficit," Weist said in regards to Bortles leading his team to the stunning comeback victory.
Bortles has a strong receiving corps, as four players have over 15 catches through six games. Rannell Hall leads the group with 24 receptions for 399 yards and three touchdowns, while Breshad Perriman has 20 catches for 435 yards and a touchdown.
In addition to their passing game, UCF has a bruiser of a running back to fall back on. Storm Johnson has blazed his way for 582 yards for an average of 5.4 per carry to go along with eight touchdowns.
"He's a strong back. He's an NFL-type power back that can put his foot in the ground and get upfield fast," Weist said. "Some backs are smaller and quicker, some backs and bigger and stronger but not as fast, and he's both. He's got good slashing ability where he can take that cut, he's got good vision, [and] he's proven that he's hard to tackle."
So while the Huskies' defensive line tries to increase their pressure on Bortles, they will also have a dynamic back to worry about containing - certainly no easy task for a team rebounding from the beating that the Cincinnati offense laid on them.
"We have to defeat our blocks, get off blocks and make tackles, make big plays, make him [Johnson] bounce it, get some edge support and tackle him for losses," tri-captain and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen said.
The UConn offense will have to find its way as well against a solid "execution defense," as Weist calls it. The key will be limiting turnovers, which killed the Huskies' momentum on several drives against Cincinnati. Tim Boyle, the freshman quarterback now entering his third game as a starter, will have to take better care of the ball. Although he threw for 310 yards last week, his three interceptions are a statistic that cannot be repeated.
"He's got to learn to make a decision and let that ball go before that pressure closes in on him, and how to move in the pocket with that pressure because the pocket's always changing," Weist said. "We're not sitting here saying, 'OK, you're a freshman so let's accept it.' No. You're a football player on this team. You're a player who is a starter, who is making decisions for all of us we tell him, 'You're not a freshman anymore. You're a starter.'"
After two weeks serving as the interim head coach while retaining his responsibilities as the team's offensive coordinator, Weist implied that there may be some changes with the play-calling duties, although he would not commit to a definitive move.
"We're going to have some changes. I'm going to focus more on Coach [Shane] Day and Coach [Kermit] Buggs and Coach [Mike] Foley being more involved in the play-calling, because me as a head coach, I've got to focus on the whole team," Weist said in response to the possibility of him handing over the play-calling responsibilities to allow him to focus more on his new responsibilities as the head man. Day is the quarterbacks coach, Buggs is the special teams coordinator and running backs coach, and Foley is back with the offensive line after coaching tight ends while Paul Pasqualoni was head coach.
Weist immediately followed this statement with a non-committal, "So, maybe." In essence, it is simply an intriguing move to keep an eye on, especially because of the offense's struggles this season.
UConn will face off against No. 21 UCF on the road starting at 12 p.m. on Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium. To pull off an upset, the team will have to correct their mistakes on all fronts and play sound, mistake-free football across the board. Without a complete team effort, they will continue to see a zero in the win column.
"We're definitely a hungry team right now. We definitely want to get a win," Stephen said.