USF-UConn aftermath: Inside the final minute
EAST HARTFORD, Ct. -– After allowing Connecticut to drive for a game-winning field goal in the final 40 seconds in Saturday’s 29-27 loss, USF’s coaches said the problem came not only from the defense that gave up 31 yards, but poor execution on the kickoff that gave the Huskies the ball at their 44.
“They had a short field,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “But you’ve got to be able to stop them.”
Special-teams coach John Hendrick said USF did not want a traditional kickoff because the wind was blowing against the Bulls. They called for walk-on kicker Eric Schwartz to hit a “hard squib,” intending for a low kick along the ground that might be difficult to field during the snowy conditions.
“It may hit them, and they’ve got to try to pick it up,” Hendrick said. “The ball’s slippery, it gets ice on it. That was the thought process. … He kicked a line drive right to him. … The wind was blowing hard, and that’s why I wanted it on the ground. But I’m not going to blame (Schwartz), We need to make better plays. When it comes down to it, you have to make the plays to win the game."
Schwartz’s kick was fielded at the 21 by Jordan Todman, the Huskies’ top rusher with a kickoff-return touchdown already this season, and Todman returned the kick to the 44-yard line.
USF gave the Huskies favorable field position on kickoffs the entire game – in five drives after kickoffs, Connecticut's worst field position was its 31-yard line, with other drives starting on their 38, 41 and 49-yard lines. As a result, none of the Huskies’ four touchdown drives was longer than 59 yards.
Getting the ball at the 44 with all three time outs, Huskies quarterback Zach Frazer beat the Bulls with short passes, hitting tight end Ryan Griffin for 11 yards, running back Andre Dixon for 5 and receiver Kashif Moore for 14. That set up a 42-yard game-winner by Dave Teggart for the win.
“The offense played great tonight. They bailed the defense out a lot,” safety Nate Allen said. “We just couldn’t make the stop at the ending. They somehow kept getting up under us with short under routes. It’s tough. You’ve just got to watch it sail through. It’s a tough loss. We just couldn’t make the stop we needed to.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Canales said the offense shares in the loss, unable to convert on a 2-point conversion after the last touchdown that would have given the Bulls a three-point lead, at least forcing overtime with a kick.
“It hurts. I feel so bad for these kids, because they worked so hard,” Canales said. “Those last 40 seconds, I was like ‘Oh, Lord, give our kids a chance, man.’ They have worked so hard. So have (UConn) – I’m not taking away from them. But our kids have really been through some stuff. It’s just one of those things that came up short. We’re all hurting right now. It’s a very difficult loss to take.”
FORD BACK: Mike Ford had his best game of the season, rushing for 74 yards on 20 carries, including a 14-yard touchdown run. He stepped after starter Mo Plancher was benched for a fumble, his third of the season and the game’s only turnover.
“We wanted to put the ball in Mike Ford’s hands,” Leavitt said. “It was going to be Plancher and Ford. Moise fumbled, and that was it. I told Carl (Franks), let’s get Mike in there and roll with him. We haven’t featured him all year.”
Connecticut's defense had been giving up yards through the air this season, but the Bulls wanted to establish their running game from the start.
“With the weather conditions, I knew we had to come up and run the ball,” Canales said. “That was the mentality we came out with tonight. They’re giving up 230-40 yards passing a game. We knew we could throw on them, but we wanted to establish our toughness, control the clock, keep them off the field. I thought we had a good plan.”
Canales said the game conditions – snow, cold, wind – set things up for a power running game, and Ford responded well.
“He had to, a big back like this,” Canales said. “Mike has to do these things when we need him. We talked before the game about how in these conditions, we had to be able to do that. I’m proud of the way he played.”
VOODOO FIVE REMEMBERED: Leavitt said as difficult as this loss was, it wasn’t as difficult as the previous two losses at Rentschler, especially in 2005, when USF had the ball at the Huskies’ 1-yard line and couldn’t get in, losing 15-10.
“This wasn’t as bad as the last two,” Leavitt said. “We had the ball at the 1-yard line and made some interesting calls.”
STEPPING UP: Leavitt was pleased by the play of sophomore Kevin McCaskill, who made his first start due to an injury to starter Sampson Genus; another potential center, Jake Sims, didn’t make the trip.
“You don’t want to miss the deal about Kevin McCaskill playing,” Leavitt said. “That’s a No. 3 center playing. It’s pretty impressive.”
FINAL DRIVE: Canales said he was happy with the tempo of USF’s final drive, which saw the Bulls run the clock down from 4:03 to 1:09 in four plays, getting to the Connecticut 28.
“Everybody’s going ‘Mike, Mike,’ and I’m like ‘Relax. We have to milk this thing as much as we possibly can.’ It was like Liberty that first year, everybody’s going ‘What’s he doing? What’s he doing?’ We’ve got to take time off. I really felt confident about our third-down and fourth-down call. I knew if we had to get to that, I was confident we could execute the play.”
B.J. Daniels converted a fourth down with a 20-yard pass to Carlton Mitchell, then spiked the ball on first and goal with 55 seconds left.
It could be argued that doing so kept the previous play – a low catch by Mitchell – from being reviewed, but it ultimately gave the Huskies more time for their final drive in response to USF’s touchdown after Daniels scored on a 8-yard run on third and goal.
“It was just, ‘Don’t panic. There’s time,” Canales said. “Coach Leavitt said ‘Mike, we’re OK.’ I said ‘You’re right, Coach. We’re fine.’ Just manage the clock, get first downs, keep working the clock down and give ourselves a chance with a minute to go. That’s what we wanted to do.”