Any Good Lines Lately?

EAST HARTFORD — It starts with the offensive line. And it starts with a good line.

It usually does.

As Adam Masters and Jimmy Bennett stood there Saturday, two 300-pound mountains trying to explain how the slants by the N.C. State defense had so throttled the UConn running game, there was another big guy across the room with another slant.

And a good line.

"It's not going to be hard to get fired up for that one," defensive lineman Ryan Wirth said of the next game against Randy Edsall and Maryland. "That's all I'm going to say about that."

So there's still animosity about being deserted in the desert after the 2011 Fiesta Bowl?

"I'm not going to comment on that," Wirth said. "I'm just going to say we're going to get it done. We're going to practice our ass off and get it done."

Good slant, Ryan, but not as good as N.C. State's slants in its 10-7 victory over UConn before 34,202 fans and 6,000 empty seats at Rentschler Field.

Good line, Ryan, but now it's time for the offensive line to be good. Or else this 2012 season is going to be an increasingly frustrating exercise where the defense does extraordinary things and the offense drags the Huskies back down to ordinary.

Coach Paul Pasqualoni saw it in the opening 37-0 rout of overmatched UMass and introduced the topic immediately. He didn't like the way the run game looked. He didn't like the way the run game was being blocked. Some saw 147 yards. Good. Others saw only 3.4 yards per carry and a lack of third-down conversions at times. Not so good.

Turned out Pasqualoni was right.

"Frustrating afternoon to put it mildly, very disappointing from a rushing standpoint," Pasqualoni said after the Huskies produced a pitiful 35 net yards on 32 carries for an average of 1.1 yards. "They slanted the front … played a lot of guys close to the line of scrimmage. We didn't do a good job of blocking."

Bennett said Pasqualoni lit into the team afterward.

"When Coach was talking after the game, it was dead silent," Bennett said. "A lot of guys were shaking their heads. He was obviously upset with the offense. All 11 of us have to work together and move the fricking ball down the field."

The Huskies had 18 net rushing yards in the season finale against Cincinnati last year, but in college football, you include the sacks. They had 81 yards gained and 63 lost that day. Johnny McEntee was a sack a minute. On Saturday, the Huskies gained 78 and lost 43. There was no sustained push down the field. They were 2-for-14 combined on third- and fourth-down conversions.

The limelight isn't fair to offensive linemen. They work. They sweat. They pound in the trenches, piles of flesh anonymous beneath a bunch of numbers like six and seven. They are oxen engaged in an intricate ballet. Yet about the only time the media wants to talk to them is when something goes wrong.

So while quarterback Chandler Whitmer and running back Lyle McCombs, who both had their problems, spoke mostly in the typical modifiers of the skill positions — "a little bit" and "sort of" — the big guys didn't hold back.

"I saw a lack of execution and, really, a lack of communication and focus," Masters said. "What happened today is unacceptable and something we need to change."

"It's really upsetting," Bennett said. "I took a lot longer than I usually do to get dressed [afterward] … coming off the field frustrated so many times it's hard to take."

How's that for honesty of emotion?

"We're not picking up the slants," Bennett said. "Sometimes we're a little too heavy on some guys, not getting off to the second level. You're seeing the linebackers making the plays on us. We've got to really work on getting to the second level. Last game against UMass, the middle linebacker made all the plays. We've got to identify the rifles off the side or the guys flowing over top."

How's that for honesty of X's and O's?

Whitmer has five interceptions and no touchdown passes in two games. On two of his three interceptions Saturday he forced passes. He got greedy. Although Whitmer made more of the third pick when he forced it long off a fake reverse, the second into double coverage was worse. The more frustrating it got in the second half, the more his throws seemed to take off on him.

"I've got to protect the football," Whitmer said. "This isn't high school or [junior college]."

No, it isn't.

Whitmer is under the microscope. And so, to an extent, is McCombs. Mike Ryan and Moe Petrus aren't around to run behind anymore. Granted the line gave up a slew of sacks last year and the pass protection appears to be better, but the run blocking sure isn't.

McCombs ran for 1,151 yards last year. He's also 166 pounds. If UConn doesn't find another running back to take some pressure off him and if the blocking doesn't improve markedly, well, there's something called diminishing returns.

"I think we're just having a problem finding our identity in the run game right now," McCombs said. "Yeah, I'm surprised. We just have to learn from these two games. I have no doubt in my mind we will get the running game going soon enough."

Pasqualoni said it wasn't like the team wasn't prepared. He said the Huskies worked hard on the run game all week.

"We just didn't get it done," Pasqualoni said.

"It's a matter of fundamentals and technique and taking care of your responsibility," Masters said.

Yet Bennett, who said he thought the pass protection was very good, did introduce an interesting point.

"We've gone against one of the best defenses for three weeks in camp," he said. "I think we come out and maybe take it a little too easy. In practice it goes a certain way and they expect it to be that way in a game. We've got to recognize things change, like [N.C. State] was supposed to do [strong-side] rifle. This week they did [weakside] rifle.

"It's the speed of the game, getting into it and blocking at that speed. Practice isn't as fast as we'd like it to be, so when we get to the games maybe we're a little shocked about it."

Masters' take?

"There's obviously a difference between the scout team and the starters for the other team. You've have to understand what the defenses are going to do on game day and you have to practice like it's game day every day."

After Dan Orlovsky left, there wasn't a running play Edsall didn't seem to love. Donald Brown, Andre Dixon, Jordan Todman — the heavy-lifting was done on the ground. That why, going into the Deserted in the Desert Bowl, it's somewhat ironic that it's the UConn running game under duress.

"It's extremely frustrating," Masters said. "We've always been good at the run and these past two games haven't been good enough. That's going to change, because we're still going to be a running team."

"I want to see perfect execution. I want to see more physicality. I want to see O-linemen getting nasty."

Adam Masters isn't alone.

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