The Other Side: UConn needs a fast start to upset Cougars
Last year, the UConn football team played spoiler against Houston in the Huskies’ final home game of the season. Thanks to stout defense, a trick play and a little bit of luck, UConn was able to defeat the No. 13 Cougars 20-17 to clinch their first bowl appearance since 2011.
This year, they’ll head to Houston and try to once again take down one of the nation’s hottest teams. While the Huskies are improved in most areas compared to last year, it still will be far from easy to hand the No. 6 Cougars their first loss of 2016.
UConn head coach Bob Diaco and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci have struggled getting the Huskies offense going early. The Huskies have yet to score in the first quarter this season and have trailed by as much as 21, 10 and 14 points against the Naval Academy, the University of Virginia and Syracuse University, respectively.
That being said, Diaco and the team have shown an ability to adjust their game plan on the fly, coming back from their 21-point deficit against Navy before losing in the game’s final seconds. They scored 13 unanswered points to defeat Virginia 13-10 and scored 24 points in the final three quarters of their loss to Syracuse last week. If the Huskies want to have a shot at taking down the Cougars, some first quarter points will be essential.
As far as UConn’s offense goes, the unit’s success depends on the play of quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. At his best, Shirreffs is an effective quarterback on short-to-mid-range passes and can extend plays and create new ones with his legs. At his worst, it’s a lot of tucking and running. Shirreffs’ favorite target is senior wide receiver Noel Thomas, who had two touchdowns against Houston last season and is coming off of a 14-catch performance, one shy of the school record. The Huskies’ tight end trio of Tyler Davis, Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers is skilled but underutilized, although there’s a good chance they may be more involved this week.
Running backs Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome dominate the ground game with Shirreffs. Newsome is a small but shifty and speedy back who is a big-play threat in both the passing and running game. Johnson serves as a bulkier running back for inside runs. Both will see action Thursday night, but Newsome has seen more snaps as of late, and one touch is all it takes for him to rip off a big play.
Entering the season, one of the Huskies’ strengths was supposed to be their defensive backfield. So far, this hasn’t been the case. Even with NFL-caliber prospects like safety Obi Melifonwu and cornerback Jamar Summers, the UConn secondary has been repeatedly victimized by its opponents, surrendering 261.8 yards per game, ranking 100th out of 128 FBS schools.
Just last week, Syracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo terrorized Summers for 270 receiving yards as part of the Orange’s 407-yard passing performance. It would be ridiculous to expect another bad performance from Summers, who had eight interceptions last season, but overall the secondary has been a major issue for the Huskies.
Other than Melifonwu and Summers, linebackers Matt Walsh and E.J. Levenberry are worth keeping an eye on. Walsh is third on the team with 25 tackles, and Levenberry is settling in nicely after sitting out last year after transferring from Florida State University. He recorded five tackles and a sack against Syracuse.
Overall, the biggest challenge for the Huskies defense likely won’t be the receiving corps but rather dealing with a healthy Greg Ward Jr. for the entire game — something UConn did not have to face in their win last November. On that front, junior defensive end Luke Carrezola and lineman Foley Fatukasi are the Huskies’ best bets to contain Ward and provide constant pressure.
UConn certainly will have their work cut out for them against the Cougars, who will be fired up and looking to avenge last season’s loss. While the disparity looks mighty on paper, the Huskies do have enough talent on both sides to make things interesting. However, it will be tough to solve their issue with slow starts on the road against the No. 6 team in the country. I have UConn hanging in tight through halftime before the Cougars pull away for good and win 35-17.
Dan Madigan is the sports editor of The Daily Campus. He can be followed on Twitter @dmad1433.