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Kevin Duffy: UConn, Whitmer can't survive without improving offense

Updated 11:58 pm, Saturday, December 1, 2012
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EAST HARTFORD -- Chandler Whitmer, wearing his usual bow-tie and a snowcap, took a seat in the Rentschler Field interview room and, to his credit, spoke like nothing was wrong.

"I was fine," Whitmer said. "I just took another bullet to the head."

Whitmer remembers standing up, then listening to tailback Lyle McCombs tell him to go down. He thinks the refs called intentional grounding on the play (and he's right, they did). He does not, however, recall the Cincinnati coaching staff holding him upright to prevent a face-plant into the Rentschler turf.

"I blacked out and (the UConn medical staff) wanted to take precautions because I had a concussion last week," Whitmer said.

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary season, Whitmer spent the fall running for his life, getting knocked upside the head and occasionally completing passes. It's understandable if memories from this season are a little fuzzy.

Luckily, if Whitmer remembers one game, he remembers them all.

What unfolded Saturday afternoon was pretty standard: Cincinnati struck first and UConn never pulled within a field goal. Whitmer stumbled to his feet after a jarring hit -- there were more of those than touchdowns this season -- and, for a minute or two, probably thought he was back home in Georgia. With or without Whitmer, UConn didn't have enough offense to overcome what, for most teams, is a manageable deficit.

There's your season, UConn fans, neatly packaged into 60 minutes of brutal weather and dull football. Just like the previous six defeats, Saturday's was a whole lot of "coulda, woulda shoulda." If Whitmer never gets knocked out of the game, if the Huskies recover a muffed punt early in the fourth quarter, if a perfect pass from Whitmer doesn't slip through Nick Williams' hands on a third and long, if Martin Hyppolite doesn't throw a block-in-the-back on Williams' 95-yard kickoff return.

If, if, if.

"When you go back on this season, and when you go back on last season," said UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, "the margin of error isn't great."

Here's another "if" to chew on: If the nation's top 20 defenses entering Saturday retain their spots, UConn will finish as the only team in that group with a losing record. The other 19 teams -- including Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, LSU and Florida State, among others -- are a combined 174-54. UConn, which boasts the nation's 10th ranked defense, left Rentschler 5-7.

In UConn's five wins, it only trailed for six minutes and eighteen seconds (overtime versus Louisville was untimed). The Huskies' lone "comeback victory" (and I use that term loosely) was against Buffalo, when they "rallied" from a 7-3 deficit. They led the whole way against Pittsburgh, Maryland and UMass. Even against Louisville, a three-overtime thriller, UConn was ahead throughout regulation.

Conversely, in seven losses, UConn led against Temple -- and that's it.

So what does that tell you?

Pasqualoni is fortunate that he inherited (and that Don Brown coached up) such a fine defense. Because this horrid offense coupled with an average counterpart would have resulted in a 3-9 season, if that. Of course, there's the flip-side to that: The 10th-ranked defensive unit and an offense that was anything close to marginal could have produced seven or eight wins.

If, if, if.

If Chad Christen didn't miss three field goals against Temple; if Whitmer wasn't drilled by Western Michigan's Desmond Bozeman; if Bozeman didn't scoop up the ball and run it in for a back-breaking fourth-quarter touchdown; if the offense could have mustered anything -- seriously, anything -- against N.C. State or Rutgers.

"It's a matter of having some big plays, stalling out, not being consistent enough whether it's passing and running," Whitmer said. "It's a number of things that we can control and that other teams did well."

On the heels of a second consecutive 5-7 season, Pasqualoni said he'll begin "quality control" when the recruiting process allows it. And quality control, as he defines it, consists of "going back through the season at all the plays -- looking at what we did and didn't do, what worked and what didn't." That'll be a headache-inducing session for everyone involved.

This offense finished 120th in the nation, averaging just over 17 points per game. And there's no one person to pin it on: The skill level across the board -- chiefly the line -- must be upgraded. After all, there's a reason Whitmer blacked out during Saturday's season finale.

Play-calling was no doubt an issue, too: Whitmer, who suffered a concussion against Louisville, took the knockout punch from Cincinnati on a wild reverse-pass. It was a dangerous play with a fragile quarterback. It was also the only risk taken by the UConn offense this season.

"Standing there and completing balls when you get hit, that's one of the best feelings around," Whitmer said. "You have to take the good with the bad."

The good was a truly elite defense, the best unit we've seen in Storrs to date. The bad was the frequency at which Whitmer got popped. Standing there with the Cincinnati coaches holding you up -- that has to be one of the worst feelings.

If UConn wants Whitmer to make it through 2013 in one piece, something has got to change.

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy