1:13 AM EDT, August 31, 2012
EAST HARTFORD —
I don't think we're in the Yankee Conference anymore, UMass.
Then again, new coach Charley Molnar already knew this. And so did anybody with a remote working knowledge of what UConn football has and what UMass football wants to become in the coming years. UConn was a 24 ½-point favorite in its 2012 season opener and, in the Minutemen's first-ever FBS game, nobody really expected them to play it any closer.
And they didn't. Final score: UConn 37, UMass 0.
What matters on a Thursday night like this in August is what we learned. Or more precisely what we think we learned from the Huskies' rout.
For if we have learned anything from opening blowouts in the past decade it's that some of what happens is real. And some of it is fool's gold.
Oh, we can strut around and proclaim we know this, or we know that or we know it all. The truth is that until we see it all in action against a legitimate opponent like North Carolina State on Sept. 8 at Rentschler Field we cannot begin to be sure.
Still, this is what my eyes told me.
There is speed on that UConn defense, some serious, scary speed. That's right, the kind of speed and pursuit that could disrupt quality opponents all season long.
With one minute and 49 seconds left in the first half, UMass took over on its own 17-yard line. At that point the Minutemen had run 18 offensive plays for 5 total yards and no first downs. They went three and out more times than the Mets on a good night.
"It was a great performance by the whole defense," middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood said.
Smallwood brought the big wood on this night. The guy was running around like a rabid dog. First pass of the game by Mike Wegzyn, Smallwood got a hand on the ball. On the third possession, he sacked Wegzyn for an eight-yard loss. Through three quarters he had five unassisted tackles. Smallwood was ready for this one.
"I've been ready since summer started," Smallwood said. "Last year [5-7] wasn't an experience we liked."
Sio Moore had five tackles. Trevardo Williams, who had 12 ½ sacks last season, pulled Wegzyn down from behind for another sack in the second half.
Granted, this was on special teams, but the speed Taylor Mack showed in the third quarter to block a Jeff Strait punt that allowed the pride of Berlin — Max DeLorenzo — to recover in the end zone for a 27-0 lead … that was lightning.
"We have fast guys all over the field," Smallwood said. "Trevardo is big, strong and fast. We've got corners and linebackers who can all move. I feel like that's great for the scheme [defensive coordinator Don Brown] brought in for us. We're going to apply a lot of pressure. We're going to make teams game-plan around us. We're not going to game plan around them."
Smallwood made plays last year. He made 94 tackles, in fact. His emergence is no shock. Yet it's also clear he wants much more of himself.
"I feel like this is my defense," Smallwood said. "I'm the middle linebacker. This is my defense. I've got to take control of that. I can't say I'm a sophomore and let these things happen. I've got to go out there and be responsible for everybody and make sure everybody get checks and go hard."
We'll have to see how the first weekend plays out around the country, but 59 yards allowed on 47 plays — 1.3 yards per play — could put UConn atop the nation's defensive list. As it stands, UMass was shut out for the first time in a span of 199 games. It never got farther than its own 38-yard line.
Welcome to the FBS, guys.
"Defensively, we played really, really well," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We hit expectations on defense. To be perfectly honest, special teams exceeded my expectations a little bit.
"We came into preseason camp last year, we didn't have a middle linebacker. Yawin's skill set was the best to be that player. He really started to come on last year. He's settling in now. He's confident. He looks instinctive. That's important for that position."
Granted, long season. Granted, weak opponent. But this is what my eyes screamed to me. This UConn defense is a blue streak.
"I don't know if it's going to look that fast next week," Pasqualoni said, laughing. "But we have guys who can run. Sio, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Trevardo, Yawin. Ty-Meer Brown was a quarterback in high school. Byron Jones has a 43-inch vertical jump. We've got athletes on defense."
There was plenty to like.
Nick Williams was an all-purpose demon. Lots of attention has been directed toward transfer Shakim Phillips, Williams and the return of Mike Smith, but Geremy Davis, a physical receiver, has emerged in practice and Whitmer found him five times for 79 yards.
In his debut, Whitmer showed he still will try to force a ball into traffic. He can't get greedy. Yet despite the two interceptions he did hit 15 of 25 passes for 219 yards. Chad Christen nailed all three of his field goal attempts, the longest of 47 yards.
The offensive line was a game of musical chairs during the first half. There was clearly a lot of experimentation going on. UConn played lots of guys and didn't empty its playbook.
"We've got enough plays to paper this wall," Pasqualoni said laughing.
Everybody knows Lyle McCombs can run. Everybody knows that is UConn's bread and butter. And McCombs buttered the bread for 89 yards on 23 carries. Pasqualoni's one complaint was that he wanted to run the ball better on third down.
Games like this, of course, usually open up on turnovers and as good as UConn looked at times the score was only 10-0 late in the first half. That's when Dwayne Gratz intercepted a Wegzyn pass for a 37-yard touchdown return. UConn never looked back.
Was there too much wildcat for my taste? Yes. Scott McCummings, who did miss a lot of practice time in August, got a lot of work in, carrying the ball seven times for 15 yards. It seemed to disrupt the rhythm of Whitmer's offense. Pasqualoni said that with so much run blitz, the wildcat is an equalizer. My eyes told me not so much wildcat next week.
But then again, this is the opener. There's a lot of real stuff and a lot of fool's gold.
And something tells me the UConn speed and pursuit on defense is very real and potentially devastating.
"I'm not surprised at all," said Smallwood, who wore a bow tie to the post-game media session. "Last year, we were ranked like No. 4 in the nation in the run game. We came out trying to prove something this year, that we're a great defense, a top-five defense in the country."
East Hartford, CT, USA
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