UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni probably figured he fielded every question about Syracuse last year, when he played his former team for the first time.
But the queries came en mass once again this week, now that Pasqualoni is actually returning to Syracuse for the first time since he was fired in 2004. Pasqualoni, always good for a quip, did not want to buy much into the story line journalists were trying to feed him, saying bluntly, "This is business. We’re not going up to Central New York to pick apples and ride on the hay wagon. My focus and all I can see is getting ready to play this game."
As he should. His Huskies (3-4, 0-2) are struggling on offense right now, and will be facing a suddenly resurgent Syracuse defense in a nationally televised game Friday night. The seat has grown warm for both Pasqualoni, now in his second year with the Huskies, and fourth-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone over the last several weeks.
They have similar issues to work through in this game. For starters, neither team is very good at holding on to the football. UConn has a turnover ratio of minus-7. That would be significantly worse had its defense not taken the ball away nine times. The Huskies lead the Big East with 16 giveaways.
Syracuse, meanwhile, is at minus-10 in the turnover department and has had a difficult time creating turnovers of its own, with only five on the season. That was evident last week against Rutgers, a game in which the Orange (2-4, 1-1) turned the ball over four times and did not get a takeaway. Marrone has repeatedly said his message to his team is to take care of the football. But that message seems to fall on deaf ears each week.
"I’m not going to lie to you. My frustration level is extremely high because it’s really what’s hurting this team," Marrone said this week. "It doesn’t give you a chance. Since I’ve been here, we have 24 losses, we're minus-30 in turnover margin. In 19 wins, plus-12. I don’t think it's rocket science.
"It’s on everyone, not just one player. We have to have a heightened intensity to make sure we protect that football, schematically put them in positions where things are clean for them. Defensively, we have to create some turnovers, special teams can’t have a turnover. All three phase have to help in that category. It’s a team category and for our team here, that’s been the problem. People talk about scheme, people talk about players, people talk about coaches. Those are the most telling numbers of this football team. When we can correct that, we’ll win a whole lot more than we lose. I believe that."
Though Marrone has not gotten as many takeaways as he would like, the defense is playing better overall. Syracuse has held its last two opponents under 100 total yards rushing, and made sure Rutgers running back Jawan Jamison failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time this season. In the last three games, Syracuse is giving up an average of 72.7 yards on the ground and 15 points on defense (Rutgers had a special teams score), with five offensive touchdowns.
"We give other teams credit for beating us, but we feel we've left a lot on the table," Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley said in a phone interview. "Whether it's not picking up ball, not catching picks, not getting sacks. We need to focus on getting better at all those things."