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November 16, 2013

Huskies Stay Winless

Despite facing Garrett Gilbert and the vaunted SMU offense, the UConn defense was holding its own and keeping their team within striking distance. Two plays changed that.

Gilbert led the quick-strike Mustangs (4-5, 3-2) on a two-play, 74-yard scoring drive ---using just 34 seconds --- from their own 26-yard-line with just over a minute to play in the third quarter. The Huskies (0-9, 0-5), who had made drastic improvements on the defensive end in the past several weeks fell victim to poor tackling angles on the outside.

First, cornerback Jhavon Williams was victimized by biting to the inside as Der'rikk Thompson took a pass, turned outside and sprinted 54 yards down the sideline before being pushed out of bounds. On the very next play, standout cornerback Byron Jones was struck with a forceful stiff arm from Keenan Holman as he too took a Gilbert pass down the sidelines for a 20-yard touchdown run and catch.

The UConn mistakes made the score 28-14, which turned out to be a key, as later in the game redshirt freshman Casey Cochran would lead UConn on its third scoring drive of the game to make it 28-21. It was too little too late for the Huskies though. The Mustangs used a poor punt by Cole Wagner to tack on another field goal and intercepted Cochran twice in the closing minutes - the first of which Stephon Sanders returned 35-yards for a touchdown - to outpace UConn 38-21.

For a defense that held Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville offense, which was ranked No. 16 in total offense at the time, to just 17 points, the performance was ultimately a letdown. They knew coming in that all eyes would be on their ability to disrupt Gilbert and SMU's air raid attack, and although they came close, Gilbert was eventually able to wear them down.

Gilbert entered the game leading the nation with 409.4 total yards per game, and the senior transfer from the University of Texas did not disappoint. He was 33-of-52 through the air for four touchdowns, and added another 23 yards on the ground. Despite these gaudy numbers, UConn's defensive front, which had been so maligned throughout the year, put enough pressure on him at times to disrupt his timing.

Seniors Shamar Stephen and Tim Willman had especially good games, recording one sack apiece for their efforts. Stephen deflected several Gilbert passes when he could not get to the quarterback, breaking up potential completions. By the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, the explosiveness and depth of the SMU aerial attack was simply too much to handle.

Thompson led the way with five catches for 113 yards, while Jeremy Johnson tallied 12 catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Holman chipped in with eight catches, 88 yards and two touchdowns as well for the balanced SMU attack.

On the other side of the ball, most of the UConn faithful were keeping a close eye on first-time starter Casey Cochran, UConn's third starting quarterback this season. The redshirt freshman managed the game and looked solid at times, but could not move the chains enough to produce the team's first victory. He was 25-of-42 for 227 yards, two touchdowns and two late interceptions in the fourth quarter.

While Cochran did not produce a win, what he did do was give the team hope that he can lead them to a victory this season. Yes, his late turnovers were both ill-advised throws. At that point, however, the Huskies were down 31-21 with less than four minutes to play. With this team's style of attack, 10 points is a substantial amount.

However, Cochran could be the game-manager that interim head coach T.J. Weist desperately needs. Weist stressed that he is preparing week-by-week, and that he inserted Cochran into the starting line-up because he believes that Cochran gives the team the best chance to win now. Although it was just one game, Cochran's solid performance complemented the renewed rushing attack that is striving to improve upon its dead-last yards per game average in the American Athletic Conference (74 yards/game entering the contest).

Ever since the coaches gave Max DeLorenzo more touches, he has provided the change of pace that the Huskies need. Lyle McCombs is a much smaller, shifty runner, whereas DeLorenzo is more of a north-south guy. DeLorenzo complements McCombs well because he punishes would-be tacklers, who are a step slower to the open gap when McCombs comes back into the game. This gives McCombs the extra split second that he needs to turn a small gain into a breakout run.

For the game, DeLorenzo had 15 carries for 62 yards (4.1 yards/carry), while McCombs tallied 17 carries for 103 yards (6.1 yards/carry). The rushing attack allowed Cochran to settle into a rhythm, and gave UConn a legitimate chance to pull off the upset.

Unfortunately, the game still came down to mistakes for UConn. In addition to the two costly missed tackles on defense, the special teams' unit struggled mightily. A missed 42-yard field goal in the first quarter by Chad Christen hurt their early-game momentum, and a muffed 14-yard punt by Wagner in the fourth quarter gave the Mustangs outstanding field position, leading to a SMU field goal.

There is finally promise on the offensive side of the ball, as long as the offensive line can keep creating gaps for the duo of DeLorenzo and McCombs to burst through. Cochran managed the majority of the game despite two errant throws at the end when his team was already down 10. The defense contained Gilbert and the explosive SMU offense for a decent portion of the game.

For disheartened fans, it may not appear like it, but the promise is there. The execution, however, remains frustratingly absent. Until the Huskies can put together an error-free performance, the results will stay the same.

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