Weekly Preview: Connecticut
Image Credit: Connecticut Post
Opponent: Connecticut Huskies (0-1, 0-0 American Athletic Conference)
Game Date/Time: Saturday, September 14, 2013; 7:30 PM ET
Venue: Rentschler Field (40,000)
TV/Radio Broadcasts: ESPN3, Terrapin Sports Radio Network
All-Time Record: 1-1 Tie
(Discuss this article on the BSL Message Board here.)
Last season, UConn fans were able to hold their heads high after beating Maryland and former head coach Randy Edsall by a score of 24-21. This weekend, Edsall and the fans of Maryland will be looking for revenge. There’s no doubt that this year’s Terps team is better than last year’s. The offense is more explosive and the defense is still very solid. But Randy Edsall won’t let this team take anyone for granted. Even if UConn did lose to FCS opponent Towson, they cannot be taken for granted.
The undoubted strength of this season’s UConn team is their defense. They have quite a few NFL prospects on that defense. The biggest question for them this season is whether or not the offense can do enough to win a few games. Their goal is the same as Maryland’s: to get to a bowl game. But those bowl games have been non-existent ever since Randy Edsall left UConn. Edsall led the Huskies out of the FCS and into the FBS. He is their winningest head coach, and had taken them to 4 straight bowl games before leaving for his “dream job” with the Terrapins. Ever since he left, head coach Paul Pasqualoni has been unable to reach the postseason, and is finding his seat getting warmer and warmer as the losses pile up.
The UConn offense is led by junior QB Chandler Whitmer, a former junior college transfer. The Huskies also use dual-threat junior QB Scott McCummings as a change-of-pace man under center. Running back has been an inconsistent position for the Huskies over the past few years. Lyle McCombs has shown glimpes of the potential that he has, but has yet to have a true breakout year. In this his junior season, he needs to be more consistent for the Huskies if he wants to keep his starting job.
UConn has a new offensive coordinator this season after a dismal showing by their offense last season. T.J. West has installed an up-tempo offense that looks to exploit the talent that the Huskies have at wide receiver. The offensive line stays mostly intact this season, and looks to be a good match for the Terps’ defensive line. The Huskies also have a new defensive coordinator after former Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown left to take the same job at Boston College. New UConn defensive coordinator Hank Hughes hasn’t changed a whole lot with the defense, but it is still the best part of this team. The thing that may change is the amount of aggression in play-calling that Don Brown initiated with the Huskies. Hughes has been the UConn defensive coordinator once before under Randy Edsall, and his defenses were productive. Expect to see a less aggressive, but still effective defense on Saturday night.
After losing to Towson, UConn will be looking for their first win of the season against Maryland on Saturday evening. They’ll also be looking to beat their former head coach. The Terps will be looking to open the season with a 3-0 record heading into their game against West Virginia at M&T Bank Stadium. The odds are probably in Maryland’s favor, but anything can happen against a team like UConn on the road.
Last week I was able to interview Connecticut football writer John Silver and ask him a few questions about this year’s team. I’d like to thank Mr. Silver for his professionalism and insightful responses.
BSL: After a 5-7 finish in 2012, what are the expectations for this season’s UConn football team, and have those expectations changed at all after their loss to FCS opponent Towson in Week 1?
Silver: The expectations for the Huskies this season are the same — bowl game. UConn has had two straight losing seasons after 4 straight bowls games under Randy Edsall and the heat is on Paul Pasqualoni. The big thing for the Huskies is showing signs of life on offense. UConn was ranked 110th in the nation last season in offense and went out and brought in another offensive coordinator to overhaul the offense. After losing against Towson, the Huskies have their work cut out for them in getting to at least 6 with Michigan, Louisville and Rutgers at home and road games at Cincinnati and Central Florida.
BSL: Randy Edsall is quite the polarizing figure in college sports. Maryland fans have generally warmed up to him due to hugely successful recruiting efforts and a steadily improving team. 3 years after leaving the program he built from the ground up, where do UConn fans stand with Edsall?
Silver: UConn fans have a love-hate relationship with Edsall. They loved what he did with the program, hated the way he left. I think that people miss the success of Edsall but not necessarily the style of play. Edsall remains polarizing to this day. His supporters think he’s a great coach who is under appreciated here and brought an 1-AA team to the Fiesta Bowl. His detractors? They wanted him fired at 3-4 after a 26-0 loss to Louisville in 2010 before the run to the Fiesta Bowl. The truth is somewhere in between. I would expect polite applause and some thanks. They miss some of the wins though and the excitement of UConn football has dropped since he’s left.
BSL: The Huskies retained head coach Paul Pasqualoni for a 3rd season, but enter 2013 with all-new offensive and defensive coordinators. How much has changed since the Terps last played UConn last season?
Silver: The offense is much different, it’s a no-huddle high-tempo approach. The wide receivers are better, the line and RB a year older. The talent is virtually the same just a year older. The defense misses Don Brown’s energy (Maryland fans know that). They also lost 4 draft picks to the NFL off that defense that was No. 9 in the country. The defense is not nearly as talented and good as it was last season and isn’t of the big play variety of last year’s unit. But, LB Yawin Smallwood, who had a monster game last year against Maryland, is back, and there is some NFL caliber talent on the defense.
BSL: UConn’s strength is obviously their defense. How do you see them trying to slow down what looks to be a very fast, very explosive Maryland offense?
Silver: Physical play is the only way for UConn to slow Maryland down. The Huskies have some speed on defense and aren’t a slow defense, but they aren’t as fast as Diggs and Co. The Huskies want to pound and play the Terps hard at the line of scrimmage. UConn has to stuff the run and look for more pressure to be brought instead of staying in their base defense, which they did mostly against Towson. The key matchup is the interior of the line, can UConn’s Shamar Stephen and Julian Campenni control the interior of the defensive line.
BSL: Maryland’s defense was one of the best units in the country before becoming riddled with injuries last season, and they look like the same unit from early last season despite losing a lot of key players up front. FIU struggled to do anything with their pro-style offense, so how will UConn try to attack this Terps defense?
Silver: The Huskies want to run the ball, which they will do with Lyle McCombs, but the playmakers are at wide receiver with Geremy Davis, a physical receiver at 6-foot-3, and with Shakim Philips, a 6-foot-1 deep threat. The Huskies didn’t get the ball in the slot to Deshonn Fox against Towson, who is an explosive converted running back. Those are the three guys out there in addition to McCombs who will make plays. The Huskies have to keep Chandler Whitmer upright. As long as Whitmer is comfortable in the pocket, he’s proven to be an excellent thrower. Getting hits on him gives him happy feet and he is turnover prone. The Huskies’ offense isn’t high-octane, though the tempo is much faster from last year, which should help create mismatches theoretically. I would expect up-tempo and quick throws and try to isolate their playmakers in space. If Maryland can rattle Whitmer, the Huskies’ offense will shutdown.
Zack’s Keys to the Game:
- Slow the game down - UConn’s offense is of the high-tempo variety, so the Terps really have to be able to slow the game down on both sides of the ball. The offense will be tested for the first time on the road, and the defense will have their hands full with their second no-huddle offense in as many weeks.
- Limit mistakes - If the Terps can avoid turnovers and giving up big plays, this game should go their way. They simply need to play good, smart football.
- Rattle Whitmer - Chandler Whitmer can be a good quarterback as long as he has time to sit in the pocket and pick apart the defense. The Terps have to bring pressure. LB Marcus Whitfield has shown a nose for the quarterback over the past two games, so look for him to play a big role this weekend by rushing Whitmer a lot.
- Run the ball - The Terps’ running game was dismal in their first game, and great in their second game. If the offensive line is able to make some holes for RB Brandon Ross, his new north-south running style should be able to gain plenty of yards on the UConn defense.
- Keep drives alive - Terps QB C.J. Brown has to be able to keep drives alive and get first downs by any means possible. If the Terps can eat up clock and wear down the talented defense of UConn, it’ll be a long day for the Huskies. Brown has shown the ability to run and pass very well over the past two weeks, and he has to be a good game manager on 3rd down for the Terps on Saturday.
- Win at all costs - No, not by dirty play. But when you go on the road, this should always be a key. It doesn’t have to be pretty as long as it’s a win. Getting off to a 3-0 start would be huge for the Terps, and would really put them on the map in the ACC to start the season.