When evaluating the scene of lower level professional game, you simply can’t compare it to the NFL. In some fashion it’s unfair to both sides. So when you pull into the lot at Rentschler Field, you see a sea of fans who don’t truly know how to root for a home town team, don’t know what to expect of the upcoming game, and you see an array of small budget entertainment keeping the tailgating fans in a relatively good mood.
You enter the stadium, and it’s more of the same. A sparse crowd, a mix of signage from the normal tenant of the stadium (the Connecticut Huskies) with signage of the new professional team. You see a combination of new and old ideas. The chains are green, not red, but you also see typical cheerleaders and mascots. In this case, the Colonials follow the footsteps of the NFL’s Patriots utilizing a small band of colonial fighters to set off a cannon and rifles at big moments of the game.
Bottom line, it was a good set up for some solid football, and a good opening for the Colonials. But that’s only taking the pre-game into account.
The actual game was as perfect a debut as possible for the Colonials, as they pounded the Mountain Lions 27-10. In all facets of the game, the Colonials looked like a polished, prepared, and talented football team. The Mountain Lions? Not so much.
From the jump, the Colonials looked more prepared and aggressive than the Sacramento Mountain Lions. Sacramento had the ball first, and Daunte Culpepper showed why he couldn’t get a sniff from the NFL. His throws were inaccurate, with his second pass of the day nearly leading to a pick, and on third down he threw a ball that would have had Sacramento at least four yards shy (if it was complete, of course). The Colonials, on the other hand, stuck to their strengths. Andre Dixon was fed the ball early and often while Josh McCown led a passing attack, hitting Markee White on a nice six yard out for a touchdown.
On this level of football, the quarterback battle is key. You may have a quarterback who is playing simply for another paycheck, while another is playing to keep his career alive, and is hungrier than ever. Culpepper looked like the former, while McCown looked like the latter. Sacramento boasted that the reunion of Culpepper with his old NFL coach Dennis Green would be too tough of a pairing for the rest of the UFL, that they would light the league up like they did during their glory days in Minnesota. The major problem with that theory is, just like when Culpepper left for Miami and Oakland, is that he doesn’t have Cris Carter and Randy Moss to throw bombs to. When Culpepper has to pick up more of the slack for his receivers, he struggles. Josh McCown doesn’t have that kind of reputation. He's a journeyman quarterback who plays to his strengths. Guess which model worked out better on Saturday?
Watching McCown operate on Saturday was a beautiful reflection of what an offense can be like when the quarterback and coaching staff are in sync. The play calling kept the defense off balance, while McCown operated within the system that he was given. His playaction was strong, his deep ball was better than you would expect, and he rarely made a foolish throw. Plus, with Sacramento having a strong run defense, and playing for the run, McCown was able to take advantage of the opportunities the Mountain Lions provided him.
On back-to-back plays in the second, McCown hit his receivers in stride, with tight, on-the-money throws. The second of which was a Culpepper from 2000-type 59-yard bomb to Jason Cherry for a score. At that moment I wondered if Dennis Green started to have flashbacks and wonder how he ended up with the quarterback who couldn’t hit a man in stride from 15 yards out even if he was operating without a pass rush.
Ryan Perrilloux came in for McCown in the second quarter, playing a Michael Vick role for the Colonials. He is the epitome of a change of pace from McCown, as his ball isn’t as accurate as McCown’s, but he’s more gifted physically and can use his legs whenever needed. Case in point, his first play ended up in a beautiful sideline tightrope scramble that produced a first and goal situation after the blocked punt. And who was the most pumped up by his run? McCown.
One important roster memento is Andre Dixon. Dixon played well, but did not have the standout performance that the Colonials envisioned when they made him the #1 pick in this year’s draft. Dixon was not a homerun hitter for the Huskies, but more of a workhorse who could take advantage of opportunities provided to him by the opposing defense. The difference on Saturday? There were opportunities for Dixon, but those opportunities closed quickly and Dixon couldn’t exploit them in time. Sure, he ended up with solid stats. But those numbers are misleading, and more of a reflection of the Colonials’ overall dominance of Sacramento. The Sacramento defensive line was worn down quickly, and Dixon took advantage as the day progressed. For the Colonials offense to continue to play like it did on Saturday, Dixon will have to play better. McCown is a good quarterback, but not the kind of guy who can take over and throw for 300+ without a run game.
**The Jumbotron showed an announced replay of a sponsored sack. For Sacramento. The announcement? “Hey fans, let’s take another look at that sack!” Not sure if Coach Palmer enjoyed that.
**Every cannon shot felt like a mini earthquake. And that’s saying something considering that I was in the press box. The cheerleaders, who were about 10 yards away from the Colonial army, are probably going to put in a relocation request for the next game.
**Blocked punt by Marshall McDuffie in the second was yet another example of how Palmer had his team ready, for all facets of the game, as opposed to Green. It was an effort play by McDuffie and is an encouraging sign that this team is a good one, from top to bottom.
**Ryan Glasper with a nice pick of Culpepper late in the second quarter. It was a combination of a player executing the defensive scheme properly (manning centerfield deep for balls downfield over the middle) and Culpepper simply throwing the ball aimlessly.
**McCown threw for 169 yards in the first half, and the Colonials managed 278 yards of total offense. The Mountain Lions had 32 and 55.
**McCown hit Lorenzo Booker, who had a very quiet first half on a short screen, Booker caught some perfect blocks, and instantly his pedestrian day turned into a great one as he raced for an 80-yard score.
**Announced attendance was 14,384. When the season opener is played on a beautiful day, you have to think that these numbers are a little light, especially since Hartford has supposedly been hungry for a pro team to call its own. However, if the Colonials can build off of this, then they can be happy where they end up.
Just one game, but a great one for Hartford. This day could not have gone better for Coach Palmer. And he knows this. What is there to learn from? Maybe that they weren’t able to do much in the return game? Maybe that they couldn’t get to Daunte Culpepper? Other than, hard to think of much that went wrong. They shut down the run game, racked up solid (but not exceptional) yards on the ground, and Josh McCown looked excellent. Ryan Perilloux is a nice change of pace, but he doesn’t warrant receiving more than three series a game, so kudos to Palmer for getting him in the game but also limiting his reps. He picked his Perilloux spots nicely. With that said, you wonder if Palmer is doing this as insurance in case McCown bolts for the NFL next year. If so, another good reason to work him in there, although he clearly is still a raw quarterback, and you wonder when he’ll be able to rid himself of that label.
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