UConn football dealing with frustrations, challenges heading into UCF game

There's a certain level of frustration any losing team fights on a regular basis.

Place the UConn football team in that category.

The Huskies lack the consistency, execution and talent pool to challenge the elite teams in the American Athletic Conference and they're facing another one Saturday.

Up next is another AAC heavyweight in No. 14 Central Florida (8-0, 5-0), which hosts the Huskies at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando (noon, ESPNU). The Knights are off to their best start in school history while the Huskies (3-6, 2-4) are heading toward their seventh straight losing season.

As losses pile up and frustration mounts, all UConn can do is keep on working, improving and growing under coach Randy Edsall and his staff.

Edsall brought in two highly-respected coordinators, Billy Crocker on defense and Rhett Lashlee on offense. Crocker coached the nation's top-ranked ranked defense in the FCS at Villanova last year while Lashlee ran one of the most prolific attacks in the country at Auburn.

Both coordinators talked about their respective unit's struggles earlier this week while preparing to face the Knights. It's been a bigger adjustment than expected.

With three games left, Crocker's defense is 69 points shy of surpassing the program's single-season record for points allowed (413 points in 1998).

"Its frustrating, for sure, for myself, all the coaches and players on our side of the ball," Crocker said. "If they're not (frustrated), there's something wrong. But you're not going to put your head in the sand and say it's magically going to disappear.

"We've got to figure ways to get our guys in the right positions to make the plays and also get the guys in the right positions, which has been a work in progress for us throughout the entire season so far."

Crocker, a Waterford native, pointed to missed tackles as a major issue, especially in recent games. He counted about 28 in last Saturday's 37-20 loss to South Florida, leading to nearly 300 yards of extra yardage after the missed tackles. The Huskies had two shots to bring down Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a short pass before the USF receiver bolted 95 yards for a touchdown.

"The thing we try to emphasize to our guys is this: be aggressive when you tackle," Crocker said. "If you miss, you miss. But if you miss with the proper leverage, you miss going full speed and take your shot, that's a good miss. Then we've got guys running to the football. Right now, we're not getting that done."

They've also had trouble stopping teams on third down and allowing too many big plays. Now they're faced with trying to contain the Knights, who own the nation's top scoring offense at 48.5 points per game. Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton ranks second in the country in passing efficiency (189.1), completion rate (70 percent) and passing yards per attempt (11.1). He's thrown for 20 touchdowns and rushed for three.

"I'm not happy where we are," Crocker said. "But we're not changing it. We know what this league is, week in and week out. This is an opportunity for us, (playing) the No. 14 team in the country and the No. 1 scoring team in the nation. Guess what, the game is coming on Saturday so we've got to play and we're going to play. We've got to see that as an opportunity."

With Lashlee's guidance, UConn's offense has clearly improved from last season, but the Huskies are far from a polished product. They've moved the ball well at times but not finished drives on a consistent basis.

UConn is also a bit banged up. Starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is sidelined with a concussion, leaving junior college transfer David Pindell to take charge. Running backs Arkeel Newsome and Nate Hopkins are returning from injuries.

"The inconsistencies have been frustrating," Lashlee said. "That's part of the process we're having to go through and sometimes it's painful because at times we do some really good things and at times we do some really bad things. You get in a third-and-one and fourth-and-one inside the 5, a lot of times it comes down to man on man ... execute and do your job.

"... We've got to be more opportunistic."

g.keefe@theday.com

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