Cohen: Connecticut’s ineptitude on offense highlights Pasqualoni’s inability to adapt to new times
His zip-up jacket was a slightly darker shade of blue, a block “C” embroidered over the left breast where an “S” might once have been. His hair was completely gray — silver, really — with the last of the black strands having already faded.
And he stood on the opposite sideline in his return to the Carrier Dome, leading a new team against his old team for what was likely the final time.
Paul Pasqualoni’s presence in Syracuse on Friday night was a throwback to the last time Orange football was relevant, the last time Central New York was on college football’s national map. As SU’s version of the old ball coach, Pasqualoni guided the Orange to nine bowl games in 14 seasons and presided over some of the program’s most successful years in history.
New athletic director Daryl Gross fired him in 2004, and Pasqualoni took his coaching philosophies with him. And though they worked brilliantly in the 1990s — the prime of Big East football — Friday’s 40-10 blowout at the hands of the Orange demonstrated an inability to adjust to the changing landscape of college football as Doug Marrone, Nathaniel Hackett and Co. shredded the Huskies with their version of the modern-day spread offense.
“(Syracuse’s) same concept of zone offense is the same thing South Florida does,” Pasqualoni said after the game. “Cincinnati is in it, Louisville is in it, everybody’s in that concept.”
Everyone, seemingly, but Connecticut.
There is no secret what you’re going to get when facing a team led by Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone, who spent 19 seasons coaching at Syracuse from 1985 to 2004. They are as old school as it gets — man coverage on defense, I-formation on offense — with little room for adaption, experimentation or improvisation.
The Connecticut defense entered Friday’s game ranked sixth in the country in total defense, demonstrating that man coverage is an ideology that can still be effective. But its anemic offense, ranked 107th, simply cannot keep up against defenders that are exponentially stronger and more athletic than they were in Pasqualoni’s prime.
UConn lined up in I-formation sets with two tight ends repeatedly against Syracuse, forcing tailback Lyle McCombs to battle a loaded box of defenders and forcing its wide receivers to win battles against double coverage on the outside due to a lack of deception and innovation.
The result was a pitiful offensive performance that yielded negative-6 rushing yards as a team and a quarterback in Chandler Whitmer who was slammed by SU defenders time and time again.
“There’s no question that once we got behind and we had to throw it, we felt the pressure,” Pasqualoni said. “They ran it well, they spread us out and they made big plays out of the short pass.”
And that right there is the difference between the 64-year-old DeLeone and Hackett, SU’s 32-year-old offensive coordinator, whom defensive tackle Deon Goggins called “a wizard” earlier in the week. It’s the difference between Marrone, a coach who was raised on smash-mouth football, but embraced the development of the up-tempo offense, and Pasqualoni, who remains steadfast in an approach that worked two decades ago.
Connecticut’s offense featured two, maybe three, targets downfield for Whitmer to throw to on a given play, and those receivers often ran predictable deep post and deep comeback patterns in obvious passing situations. Any semblance of balance was forfeited through an unimaginative running game that was swallowed up one year after it amassed more than 200 yards against the same Orange defense.
Meanwhile, Syracuse’s offense on Friday was a beautiful blend of run and pass, of shotgun and single back, of power and finesse. Tailback Jerome Smith gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground through power running and pushing the pile, while wide receiver Alec Lemon torched the Connecticut secondary for 166 yards and a touchdown by taking advantage of quick throws and runs after the catch.
“I think to get different guys out there — two tight ends, four wideouts, three wideouts — I think that made our guys be able to take a breath,” Hackett said. “Playing with the four running backs, I think all four of them had some carries, and I think that helped them, too. So the more fresh we can keep them, the more different things we can show, the better we will be.”
It’s an illustration of how the Syracuse football program is progressing under Marrone, even though his career record (20-24) will fall short of Pasqualoni’s record (26-20) during his last four seasons at SU.
At least Marrone is adapting, embracing the new direction of college football and continuing to work out the kinks of a new system that currently ranks tied for 39th in the country in total offense.
Because across the way on Friday was a picture of a once-effective past that is now finding itself outdated. It’s what college football was, not what college football currently is.
Said quarterback Ryan Nassib: “We really accomplished everything we set out for this game, and we executed on all three facets.”
Michael Cohen is a staff writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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