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    Saturday, May 27, 2023

    Were you wildy entertained by UConn? I sure wasn't

    East Hartford — Maybe it's because football — as usual — has been gone too long. But the season opener (and it's probably like this in every sport) seems great fodder for turning already hysterical fan bases into 30,000 Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Hyperbole on top of distortion on top of hallucination.

    Which brought us to Rentschler Field on Thursday night, year three for the UConn Huskies under Bob Diaco. Opponent: Maine. And you stop there. And you start there. It's Maine. The Football Championship Subdivision, the erstwhile I-AA. UConn began and ended the night with better players and the better team.

    Hence, any declarative statements and hysterical proclamations based on playing an inferior opponent aren't worth the hot air they're wasting.

    Except what happens when it takes the superior team until the last play of the game to win?

    And have to rally from a seven-point deficit late to do so?

    That's right. UConn defeated Maine 24-21 on Bobby Puyol's 37-yard field goal in the closing seconds. The Huskies trailed 21-14 late.

    True enough, victory is always better than the alternative. But UConn's drawing board should be occupied forthwith.

    Let's say this: UConn's offense, which coordinator Frank Verducci hopes to be "spectacularly consistent" was a spectacular fire drill for most of Thursday.

    Burned timeouts early in the game. Dubious clock management at the end of the first half in Maine territory. And worst of all: Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs running with alarming regularity, calling into question how long he'll last this season if this continues. If you are the defenses of Navy, Virginia and Syracuse, all a comin' before September ends, are you salivating?

    Now I get Diaco's blueprint: run the ball, play defense, field position and kicking game. It works under the right circumstances. Like at Stanford or when Bill Parcells had LT and Phil Simms.

    This is what Verducci said in preseason:

    "We're really a little bit old school here," he said. "It's not much different than the model here in the early 2000s in that it's complementary football. ... All three pieces have to fit together. So part of our deal is zero turnovers, time of possession, run the football and it complements what we do defensively. And then the kicking game plays into the field position aspect of it.

    "We're not a flash and dazzle, we're not an offense of the year type of thing. We want to be spectacularly consistent. ... But at the end of the day the thing you remember is wins or losses."

    Seems easy to nitpick the approach. Offense is football's sex appeal. The stadium hasn't been full here for a while (and wasn't close Thursday). Nobody wants to see 13-10 games. Bad is one thing. Bad and boring is ruination.

    I also get Diaco's thinking. This is the state university of Connecticut. Not Florida. Elite athletes, especially at skill positions, are not easy to recruit here. This isn't suggesting UConn can't find good players. But the recipe here might be more organic: great coaching, strong, tough linemen, power run game.

    "Without question, it's the right philosophy at a place like UConn," ESPN's Tom Luginbill said during a phone conversation once, "not have to rely solely on athletes playing in space."

    But what happened Thursday night was unimaginative to the point of absurdity. Could and would UConn wear down Maine on both lines? That was the plan. Did they want to empty the playbook in Game One? Of course not. But in a season of alleged promise, none of us needed a bore-a-thon, all while the Quarterback Scramble was the play du jour.

    Put it this way: Shirreffs finished with 20 rushing attempts. Arkell Newsome had 15. That's bad. Some of that is on Shirreffs, who appears to be short on patience in the pocket.

    But how can you honestly obsess over football for as long as these coaches have ... and produce that in the season opener?

    "It was a good hard fought game, a lot of fun," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "Hopefully everybody was wildly entertained."

    I wasn't.

    Were you?

    It got to the point when you wanted to tell the Big 12 to turn away, especially when Najee Goode, a Maine junior, sacked Shirreffs — hammered him, actually — and the resulting touchdown made losing — to Maine! — a frightening possibility.

    Shirreffs took way too many hits. He ran the ball way too many times. Tommy Myers, the tight end with the sure hands, might as well have been in witness protection. Receivers got little separation against Maine defenders.

    Not good.

    The old line is that the most improvement happens from week one to week two. That's good. The Huskies need it.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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