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The Big Preview: Can Virginia find their first win in 2016 against UConn?

Two football powerhouses, sort of, go head to head.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos next head to East Hartford, CT to face the Huskies (though the school is in Storrs, they play football about 25 miles away in East Hartford). Though the two teams haven’t played since 2008, Wahoo fans will see a lot of familiar faces on the Huskies’ sideline. Their coaching staff includes 4 former Virginia assistants, 2 of whom also suited up for the Hoos.

The Huskies head coach is Bob Diaco, who was LB coach and Special Teams Coordinator for 3 years under Al Groh. The Huskies Defensive Coordinator is Anthony Poindexter, who needs no introduction here. Vincent Brown is the co-Defensive Coordinator and previously served as LB coach and DL coach under Mike London (also worked with London at Richmond) and Wayne Lineburg was WR coach and RB coach for the Hoos under Groh and also played QB for the Hoos in the mid-90s.

Beyond that, of course, there isn’t much on the UCONN team that will be familiar to Virginia fans. For one thing, the UCONN team in 2008 was coached by Randy Edsall, who left in 2010 for Maryland. He’s now an assistant with the Lions. He took them to 4 straight bowl games from 2007-2010. That was the glory era for UCONN football. Since then, the team hasn’t been very good, and hasn’t finished with a winning record, though they did go bowling last year, losing to Marshall in the St Petersburg Bowl.

This year, the Huskies are 1-1, having come away with a 24-21 win over FCS foe Maine in their opener. Last week, they lost 28-24 to Navy in a strange game, that had Navy leading 21-0 then giving up 24 unanswered before going back in front. UCONN had a chance at the end to win the game, with a first and goal at the 10 with 21 seconds remaining. They got down to the 1 yard line on first down (and out of bounds), ran unsuccessfully on 2nd down and never got another play off.

The Hoos, as we know, are 0-2. Though they looked better last week against Oregon, they still appear to have a long way to go before they get to where Coach Mendenhall and his staff want them to be.

Here’s the game information:

Who: Connecticut Huskies
Where: Pratt & Whitney Stadium, East Hartford, CT
When: 1:30 PM ET
TV: ESPN3/WatchESPN (hopefully in English this time)

So let’s get down to it, how do the Hoos stack up?

UCONN on Offense

QB: #4 Bryant Shirreffs

RB: #22 Arkeel Newsome, #3 Ron Johnson

WR: #5 Noel Thomas, #86 TE Alec Bloom

At first glance, the Huskies run a pro-style offense. Their depth chart lists 2 WRs, 2 TEs, and a single RB. That certainly screams pro-style offense. They’ll regularly line up with jumbo packages, especially on first down. The difference between UCONN and a typical pro-style offense is that QB Bryant Shirreffs leads the team in rushing attempts and yards (33 for 159). Last year, he finished 2nd in both. He’ll run on designed keepers, or on read options. They’ll also give him run/pass options. They’ll try to lull you to sleep with the running game, and then they’ll run out a 4 WR set and start throwing the ball around. They’ll also spread out with a RB in the slot. When they do that, watch for the RB to come across the formation and take an inside handoff. They run this play multiple times per game.

The strange thing is, Shirreffs was not seen as a running QB when he came out of HS. He’s athletic, but he’s not all that fast. He’s not small, but he’s also not big (6’2” 220). He started his career at NC State and saw limited action as a true freshman in 2013. He rushed for a TD and threw a TD in the season opener against Richmond, but that was really his only extended action. He was used mostly as a sort of “wildcat” QB in short yardage. He ended up with 34 carries for 162 yards to go along with 4/5 passing for 17 yards. He has deceptive moves in the open field, and runs smart. He’s not going to have big running plays, but he’s going to pick up positive yards when he runs. His running style could probably be compared to a FB, rather than an HB. Some might say he’s a bit like Tim Tebow in that regard.

Truth be told, this is not a good offense. They ranked 123rd in the nation in total offense a year ago, while they were 121st in scoring. Rushing offense was 114th and passing offense was 103rd. So far this year, they’ve been a little better, ranking 93rd in total offense and 94th in scoring offense.

The OL is huge, averaging well over 300 pounds and over 6’6”. They aren’t the most mobile of OLs, but they will move around with pulls and traps and other things. The TEs are also huge, with 260 pound Alec Bloom leading the way. They’ll rotate as many as 4 or 5 TEs, and all of them essentially act as an extra tackle. Sometimes, they’ll move one TE in motion and use him as a lead blocker on a WR screen or even a simple sweep. Though they are mostly a north-south power rushing team, they will try to spread you out horizontally as well.

The two RBs are juniors Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson. They are a sort of lightning and thunder combination, with Newsome (5’7” 185) as the small, quick, agile back and Johnson (5’11” 220) the bigger bruising back. Newsome led the team last year with 792 yards, including a 90 yard TD run. Johnson had 224 yards on 88 carries (just a 2.5 ypc average), but did have 5 TDs. This year, though, Johnson is ahead with 98 yards on 25 carries, while Newsome has 53 yards on 24 carries. Newsome is the Huskies’ primary kick returner and finished 61st in the nation last year, averaging over 22 yards per return.

In case you were counting, that is 82 total carries between the 3 primary rushers. Compare that to Shirreff’s 49 pass attempts, and you get an idea of what UCONN’s offense might look like. Last year the ratios were similar (477 rushing attempts versus 279 pass attempts).

So far this year, the only rushers have been the 3 guys I’ve mentioned and WR Noel Thomas. Thomas has 2 carries for 12 yards. Thomas also has 20 catches for 186 yards and a TD. That is half of the team’s receptions. Seriously, the rest of the team has exactly 20 catches combined. Last year, Thomas led the team with 54 receptions for 719 yards, which was more than 25% of the team’s receiving. Newsome was second with 45 catches for 465 yards.

So basically, on passing downs, the plan should just be to cover that guy. And by that, we don’t mean single coverage with no help over the top, which we’ve seen far too often this year. Thomas isn’t nearly as dangerous as Oregon’s trio of WRs, but he’s got NFL potential. He’s more of a possession WR, though he has good speed.

UCONN is going to try to run the ball and they are going to try to use misdirection. The Hoos have struggled to stop both of those things this year. But both Oregon and Richmond were passing teams who used the run as a change-up. UCONN is a running team, so hopefully the Hoos are better prepared. Facing Oregon’s misdirection running game should help, because UCONN’s backs aren’t nearly as talented as Royce Freeman, and Shirreffs isn’t the runner that Dakota Prukop is.

UCONN on Defense

DL: #93 DT Folorunso Fatukasi, #15 DE Luke Carrezola

LB: #36 MLB Matt Walsh, #11 SLB Junior Joseph

DB: #21 CB Jamar Summers, #20 S Obi Melifonwu

UCONN runs a pretty straight forward 4-3 defense. It will look similar to Mike London/Jon Tenuta’s defense. The DTs are very big, and their primary job is to stop the run. The DEs are pass rushers and the LBs are the main playmakers.

While all of that is true, the 2 best players on the defense are most likely Fatukasi and Melifonwu. Fatukasi led the team last year with 8 sacks, though he was 3rd in TFLs. Melifonwu is 3rd on the team in tackles (and was last year as well) and is also a good over guy. He’s big (6’3” 217), he can hit, and Kurt Benkert will have to be very careful when throwing the ball over the middle.

Jamar Summers had 8 INTs last year, and he had an 86 yard fumble return TD last week against Navy. He’s the top cover guy, though both of the CBs can cover. UCONN will run a lot of single coverage, especially since the Hoos will be playing multiple WRs. You can expect to see a decent amount of nickel coverage from UCONN, with John Green as the nickel back.

UCONN’s tackle numbers so far this year as skewed by the matchup with the triple-option running Navy Midshipmen. The leading tacklers are MLB Matt Walsh and WLB Vontae Diggs. Last year, Walsh started all 13 games at MLB and finished just 6th on the team in tackles. Diggs was mostly a special teams player through his first 2 seasons. The leading tacklers last year were the safeties along with SLB Junior Joseph. That will likely play out again as this season progresses. Joseph was a high school DE and is the best pure pass rusher on the team (which includes Fatukasi, who mostly gets the job done with brute strength rather than great technique).

Next to Melifonwu is sophomore Anthony Watkins, who is replacing last year’s leading tackler Andrew Adams who is now on the Giants’ practice squad. His loss has been a big one for the Huskies. Watkins barely played last year, totaling 1 tackle. He’s good in pass coverage, but at this point he’s nowhere near the playmaker that Adams was last year.

UCONN’s defense last year finished 33rd in the nation (and 15th in scoring defense). That was aided by their 15th ranked turnover margin. Their biggest strength was against the pass. With 2 good cover corners and 2 good cover safeties, they can match up with the Hoos passing game.

Which brings us to the Hoos’ offense. This is a passing offense. Through 2 games (attempting to account for sacks and scrambles), there have been roughly 50 called run plays and roughly 80 called pass plays. Some of that is obviously because the Hoos were trailing. But based on what we heard from Robert Anae, and the game plans that we’ve seen so far, we’ll continue to see a lot of this quick passing game.

So far at least, that passing game has mostly been to the outside. There have been some looks over the middle, but most of the plays have come on the outside. This bodes well against a defense whose strength is up the middle. The interior of the Hoos’ OL will have its hand full with almost 650 pounds of DT, so it will be hard to replicate the success they had with the straight-up-the-gut runs they had last week. This may be the week we start to see some read option, because it would help remove the DTs and also help to keep the safeties near the line, perhaps opening up some big plays in the passing game.

Big plays. Wouldn’t that be nice? Through 2 games, the Hoos’ longest rush is 19 yards, and longest play is 26 yards. There have been just 5 plays for greater than 20 yards (meanwhile, they’ve given up 13 such plays, including 3 plays of over 50 yards). The Hoos are going to need some big plays. Trying to dink and dunk their way down the field simply isn’t going to work often enough. There is too much inexperience on the offense which inevitably leads to mistakes. The six turnovers highlight that issue.

Pass blocking has been an issue thus far for the Hoos as well, and that will need to change. UCONN cannot afford to let Benkert get into a rhythm so they will blitz and will bring rushers from everywhere. If the Hoos get behind the sticks again, as they have all season long, they’ll struggle. If UCONN is blitzing, that means man coverage. With 4 and 5 receivers on the field, there won’t be any help either in most cases. This means that the short passes may be there, as the DBs give some cushion. Of course, Benkert will need to be careful on the horizontal throws, because a guy like Summers will try to jump the route looking for a pick six.

Conclusion

This is a game between two struggling teams. UCONN very nearly lost to an FCS team and the Hoos did lose to an FCS team. UCONN was outplayed by Navy for most of the game, though they fought hard to get back into it and probably should’ve won.

The Hoos may benefit from the Oregon game, because the speed this week will pale in comparison to the speed last week. Still, they have a long way to go, especially defensively. So far, they are giving up nearly 6 yards per carry. That doesn’t bode well against a team that runs the ball as much as UCONN does.

If the Hoos were at home, I’d like them to win easily. But this is a team that still needs to learn how to win and the breakthrough is more than likely going to come at home where they can feed off the energy of the home crowd.

Prediction: Huskies 28, Hoos 21