Game 11 Preview: Connecticut

Your undefeated and 19th ranked Houston Cougars look to take their “HTownTakeover” to East Hartford, Connecticut for a physical contest against a game Huskies squad at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field this Saturday (November the 21st). Game time for this first time matchup in football between the two schools is set 3:30pm local time and will be nationally televised on ESPNU.

With a win the Cougars (10-0, 6-0 in American Athletic Conference play) will be one step closer to winning the AAC’s Western division as they host second place Navy (8-0, 6-0) the following week to set up a winner take all showdown in the regular season finale. While the fans may be getting giddy over that day after Thanksgiving matchup against the Naval Academy, Tom Herman’s squad shouldn’t overlook the Huskies (5-5, 3-3 in the East) as they are being remade in the image of their head coach Bob Diaco (7-15 in his second season). The two-time All-Big Ten selection as a linebacker at Iowa under legendary head coach Hayden Fry was named the team’s co-MVP in his senior season of 1995 and started all 23 games over his final two seasons in Iowa City. Diaco was the Frank Broyles Award winner, given to the best college football assistant coach in the nation, in 2012 as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame; the year the Fighting Irish made it to the BCS National Championship game.

This image is one of old-school football. Both his schemes on offense and defense are throwbacks; pro-style offensively and a down-hill, hard-hitting, physical style via their 3-4 alignment defensively. Diaco, like on offense with first year coordinator Frank Verducci (who was a hard hitting fullback and tight end in high school and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy), hired a defensive coordinator in this same image. Second year safeties coach Anthony Poindexter, was one of the fiercest hitting safeties during his college career at Virginia, according to his bio on UConn’s website. He earned first-team All-American honors during his junior and senior seasons in 1997 and 98 and finished his career with 342 career tackles.

While they’re good at a lot of things, the Huskies aren’t great in any particular facet of the game (explaining their 5-5 record). Defensively however is where UConn hangs their hat as they allow only 19.3 points-per-game (22nd nationally) and 358.8 total yards of offense (41st). While allowing opponents to rush for 171.3 yards-per-game (71st), the Huskies secondary are ball hawks as they are tied with the Coogs as both teams have 15 interceptions on the year (7th) while allowing only 187.5 yards passing-per-game (25th).

Though allowing 171 ypg rushing, 303 of those came against Navy. Up front the Huskies are led by mammoth tackles/ends Kenton Adeyemi (6’4, 291, RSr.), Foley Fatusaki (6’4, 304, RSo.) and Julian Campeni (6’0, 306, RSr.). Luke Carrezola (6’3, 255, So.) plays a hybrid defensive end/rush backer so one play he may be in a 3-point stance while falling back into coverage on the next. Poindexter won’t have his front-7 blitzing very often as he’ll often drop 7 or 8 back into coverage in his quarters zone scheme in which he tries to make opposing QB’s throw into very small windows (explaining the passing yards allowed and number of interceptions). For this reason the defense only has 15 sacks on the season (97th) with the high motor running’s Fatusaki and Carrezola with 5 and 4 each. Carrezola also leads the unit with 7.5 tackles-for-loss, and has 2 forced and recovered fumbles. Fatusaki has TFL and 4 QB hurries with Adeyemi adding 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks himself. Mikal Myers (6’1, 323, RJr.) is also a run stopper in the middle and has 4 TFL in reserve.

Middle linebacker Junior Joseph (6’1, 242, RSo.) and strongside linebacker Graham Stewart (6’1, 237, RSr.) are fast flowing hard hitters. Joseph has 73 tackles, including 3.5 TFL, and an interception. Stewart meanwhile, is tied with Carrezola with 7.5 TFL among his 51 total while adding 2 sacks. These linebackers just aren’t big and physical but athletic as well with Stewart acting as a ‘spy’ in many games when facing a speedy dynamic QB. Matt Walsh (6’1, 241, Jr.) is another tough and experienced linebacker who shares time with Marquis Vann (6’0, 231, RSr.) on the weakside. Walsh has 44 tackles including 3.5 for loss while Vann is more of the drop back type in zone type, adding 29 tackle and an interception.

They’ll be facing an offense that rushed for a season low 96 yards against the Tigers last week. Even so, the Coogs average 255.3 yards-per-game on the ground for the season (8th) while passing for 256.5 (36th). Their total offense of 511.8 is 13th in the nation and their 43.5 points-per-game is 8th.

The battle along the line of scrimmage will be one to see as Houston started its EIGHTH different starting lineup along the offensive line last week. Let me repeat that, the Cougars started their EIGHTH different starting lineup last week, highlighted by two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman. If offensive line coach Derek Warehime doesn’t get the award for the best assistant coach in the nation this season they should just toss it in the garbage.

Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) has been solid all season having alternated between right tackle (to begin the season), right guard (for a few games in the middle of the season), and now at left tackle. Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.) has settled in nicely at left guard in three of the last four games (having sat out two games ago because of a concussion), after not seeing any playing time the first four games of the season.

The same goes for true freshman center Will Noble (6’4, 290) as he’s started the last four games at probably the most difficult position on the entire field with all the line adjustments he has to make. Along the right side, Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) is listed as the starter though he hasn’t played in two of the last three games because of a shoulder stinger suffered against UCF. The game in which he did play, Cincinnati, he played for only a few snaps before having to leave because of the lingering issue.

If he can’t go then true freshman Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290) replaces him, which is amazing considering he moved over from defensive line after the SMU game (6 weeks ago) when starting right tackle Zach Johnson and starting left guard Josh Thomas were lost for the season with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. That was only three weeks after starting left guard Ben Dew was lost for his final season with a broken foot.

Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.) sat out the first half last week due to “disciplinary issues,” according to Herman, and will be starting at right tackle after starting the season at right guard while also playing some left guard with all the injuries. Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) started the first five games at left tackle but hasn’t looked the same since after spraining an ankle in that SMU game. He’ll be a reserve along with Damien Parris (6’6, 315, Sr.), who’s also filled in at right tackle due to all the injuries.

An unsung hero along the line is tight end Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.), who’s done a magnificent job on kick-out blocks on outside zone runs this season. If you’re counting, that’s ten linemen (eleven counting McCloskey) who have contributed this season, which is unheard of in this day and age.

The cat-and-mouse game between Poindexter and Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite will be interesting to see Saturday afternoon. Some games Applewhite repeatedly tried using his inside zone scheme against opponents with little to no results. Last week against Memphis was the opposite; bruising running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) only carried 3 times through the first 3 quarters (for 16 yards and a TD). He would finish the game with 10 carries and 46 yards with another score. Herman mentioned during his Monday media press conference how the offensive coaches abandoned it too quickly because of the stunts and twists up front that were confusing his young offensive line.

Does Herman have Applewhite try to establish an inside run game early? I would as it helps ease the pressure off the QB (whoever that’ll be which we’ll get into later). Four and five yards on first down, which Farrow is averaging (5.4 actually), keeps the offense “on schedule” or leads to shorter distances on second and third down in which the entire playbook remains open. Farrow is averaging 90 ypg this season with 12 TDs. With Ryan Jackson and his 353 and 3 TDs out for the season with a shoulder injury, young Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) needs to pick up the slack as he did earlier in the season when he edged out Jackson as the backup before spraining an ankle. Webb has 228 yards and 3 scores.

As to who will be the signal caller for the game, that’s unknown at this time as Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 185, Jr.) is still recovering from his sprained ankle suffered last week. After starting the season on fire while being listed by some as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman, Ward has regressed even before spraining his ankle. Though still completing 69.3-percent (6th) of his passes while averaging 218 yards-per-game through the air with 13 TDs to only 4 interceptions, Ward was stymied last week as he rushed for a negative-19 yards, with many coming via the 5 sacks Memphis was credited with. Herman mentioned on Monday that UConn’s front doesn’t play the same type of “games” up front with all the twists and stunts, though they do make you pass into heavy coverage as previously mentioned, which is a whole other animal all together. Ward is also averaging 81 yards on the ground and has 16 TDs, tied for 6th in the nation.

If Ward can’t go, neither Herman nor Applewhite will have a problem inserting Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, So.) into the lineup. After engineering a scoring drive to get the Coogs back in the game right before halftime last week down by 20, all “The Postman” would do is complete 21 of his 33 passes for 236 yards and a TD on a beautifully thrown deep post in which he looked off the safety giving his wide receiver, Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) one-on-one coverage on the outside as he ‘high-pointed’ the ball, reeling it in for a 30-yard TD. Though obviously not as quick and elusive as Ward, Postma is highly athletic in his own right as he spun away from many would-be sacks only to throw the ball across his body for completions. The Katy product also scored the game winner on a 7-yard option keeper and had 49 yards on 6 carries. After losing out for the backup QB spot, Postma was moved to receiver before having to move back to QB after yet another injury to backup Adam Schultz. Herman said in one of his media press conferences earlier this season that Postma is a “10-foot broad jump guy,” in speaking of how athletically gifted he is.

It seems that Postma and Bonner have some type of chemistry on the field as they’ve combined for two of the three TD’s for Bonner, who’s established himself as the fourth receiver in the rotation. Whoever starts at QB, look for him to use Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) as much as possible in the short passing game. Ayers is averaging 89 yards-per-game (23rd) and an 8th leading 7.4 receptions per game with 5 TDs. Though the deep passing game hasn’t worked as much as Herman and Applewhite would have liked so far this season, when passing off play-action, it’s usually Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) whom the QB’s like to dial up. The former Oregon transfer is both second in receiving yards, receptions and TDs with 519, 37 and 3 respectively. He also averages a unit leading 14 yards-per-reception. Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) has 321 yards on 24 catches and 2 TDs but has to be more consistent if Applewhite is to call his number more this year as drops have hurt the young receiver this season.

The Cougar receivers will be facing a heady secondary led by shutdown corner Jamar Summers (6’0, 185, So.), who’s tied for third in the nation with 6 interceptions. Summers is also a threat after intercepting the ball as he averages 17 yards-per-interception, including a 67-yard “pick-6” two weeks ago at Tulane for the only score in their 7-3 victory. Jhavon Williams (5’10, 190, RJr.) mans the other corner spot and adds 8 passes defended (one more than Summers) and 3 interceptions of his own.

While most defensive coordinators wouldn’t want their safeties as two of their three leading tacklers, this is just fine to Poindexter as he’ll often rotate which one to drop in the box as an extra defender at the last second. Strong safety Andrew Adams (6’0, 198, RSr.) leads the team with 74 total tackles and has 4 passes defended and 2 picks. Free safety Obi Melifonwu (6’3, 216, RJr.) will play center field in their 1-safety high looks as he looks to tee off on receivers coming over the middle. The hard hitter is third with 65 tackles while adding 6 passes defended and 2 interceptions.

Flipping the script, the Huskies offense averages just 19 points-per-game (115th nationally) in Verducci’s first season as OC and running backs coach. With five offensive linemen who average 6-foot-5 inches tall and 308 pounds across the board (while having started every game), Diaco and Verducci want their offense to line up and punch the opposition in the mouth. Their smash-mouth style of play would make the old Big East basketball conference proud. Change takes time however, and with as many youngsters as they’re playing (ten sophomores and freshman out of their 22 two-deep), the team is gradually improving; having won three of their last five.

Verducci’s pro-style system utilizes a lot of two tight end sets, using one of them to often shift and motion in order to create an unbalanced formation. By overloading one side of the line Verducci tries to gain a numbers advantage in which they’ll run behind, otherwise known as their ‘Ace formation.’ The first year offensive coordinator is patient with the run game as they only average 133 rushing yards-per-game (111th), but hold the ball for 31-minutes, 44-seconds of possession time (31st) behind running backs Arkeel Newsome (5’7, 180, So.), Ron Johnson (5’11, 226, So.), and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (6’2, 220, RSo.).

While Newsome may look like a ‘scat-back,’ he’s their best all-around back as he can run hard between the tackles, and has great vision and speed (as witnessed by his 90-yard run versus East Carolina two weeks ago). Newsome is also a great blocker as Verducci will protect his young offensive line often by going with “max protection” (8 or 9 players staying in for protection while sending out only 2 wide receivers). Newsome averages five yards-per-carry on his 129 rushes (for 645 yards) and has scored 6 touchdowns. He’s also a great threat out of the backfield as he’s second on the team in receptions with 36, for 417 yards (11.6 yards-per-reception) with 2 more scores. Johnson is more their short yardage back as he has 168 yards on 77 rushes (2.2 ypc) but has crossed the goal line 4 times.

Shirreffs is the definition of the type of player Diaco wants playing for him; a big, tough, physical competitor who’s not afraid to get hit. Starting in his first season, the NC State transfer has no problem pulling the ball down and running if he doesn’t see any of his receivers or tight ends open downfield, maybe too much so for his head coach (sound familiar Coogfans?) as he’s been roughed up a bit this season with many nasty hits (via the video I’ve witnessed) leading to “happy feet” in the pocket at times. That hasn’t stopped the Jefferson, Georgia native however, as he has 422 yards on a team leading 134 carries (3.1 ypc) with 3 TDs. Shirreffs will run off bootlegs, draws or zone read keepers in order to keep opposing defenses off balance.

As previously stated, and in major contrast to Houston’s O-Line, the Huskies ‘big uglies’ up front of Richard Levy (6’6, 312, RJr.), Tommy Hopkins (6’6, 309, RSo.), Brendan Vechery (6’6, 302, RSo.), Tyler Samra (6’2, 301, Sr.) and Andreas Knappe (6’8, 311, RJr.) from left to right tackle have started every game so far this season. Experience wise, Levy and Samra are making their 23rd consecutive starts at left tackle and right guard respectively over two seasons while Knappe is making his 18th straight start at right tackle. Hopkins and Vechery are first time starters this year, though by this time of the year everyone is experienced. Trey Rutherford (6’5, 300, So.) is a backup tackle who will play at fullback in short yardage and goal line situations. Max DeLorenzo (5’11, 216, RSr.) is a fullback who can either block or carry the rock as he has 36 yards on 18 attempts, again mainly in third-and-very short.

The Huskies want to get their offensive line to the second level quickly where they can maul smaller linebackers and safeties downfield in their zone run scheme. Inside they’ll run off of power, counters and traps. It’ll be the job of the Cougars defensive front to keep this from happening, which the line has done a fine job of all season as the “Third Ward Defense” has only allowed opponents to rush for 110.7 yards-per-game, which was bumped up after allowing 212 yards to Memphis last week, ranking them 13th in the nation.

Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.), and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.), with Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.), Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) and Zack Vaughan (6’4, 270, RFr.) in reserve will need to get their hands up on the massive UConn O-line to stand them up or cause traffic, allowing the linebacking duo of Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) and Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) to quickly shoot the gaps. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will often use the two in his double-A gap blitz calls in order to cause chaos behind the line of scrimmage.

For the season, Taylor has 13 TFL and 8 sacks this season while only two other players in the FBS have more than Roberts’ 76 solo tackles. Orlando’s scheme isn’t designed to allow the defensive front to have nice numbers as Mark has 27 total tackles, 2 for loss and 4 QB hurries. Malveaux leads the unit with 14 solo tackles, 7 hurries, 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. Singleton adds 3 hurries, 2 TFL and a sack from his nose spot in the middle. Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) has 42 tackles, 5.5 for loss and 4.4 sacks. Bowser also has the athleticism to get down field on zone blitzes as he adds 3 passes defended and 2 fumble recoveries on the season.

Verducci loves to send his receivers deep to set up underneath routes for his tight ends on underneath routes or his backs coming out of the backfield. Shirreffs has completed 60-percent of his passes but only attempts 26 per game. In trying to force throws at times, the young gun slinger has 7 interceptions to only 8 TDs. The Huskies aren’t particularly deep at receiver as they don’t play a lot per game as they use their running backs and tight ends in the passing game. When they do need a play from a receiver in their quick passing game, Noel Thomas (6’1, 195, Jr.) is usually their man as he leads the offense in both receptions and yards with 42 for 548 while adding a TD. On the other side is Tyraiq Beals (6’0, 171, Fr.) who has 21 receptions for 248 yards with 2 scores.

Tight ends Alec Bloom (6’6, 257, So.) and Tommy Myers (6’5, 255, RSo.) are huge problems when used in the passing game as they cause a matchup nightmare for opposing slower linebackers or smaller safeties in which they’ll just out-physical. Luckily the Coogs have fast linebackers, but they’ve still had problems covering tight ends over the middle of the field all season, whether it be Taylor, Roberts or Bowser. Bloom averages 16.4 yards-per-reception on his 17 catches with a score while Myers is right behind him, averaging 14.5 ypc on 16 receptions with 2 scores.

Herman, as he’s wont to do in discussing injuries, didn’t say whether shut-down corner William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.) would play or not after spraining a knee two weeks ago, saying “if he’s ok he’ll play, if not he won’t.” While Jackson’s health may trump playing this week against a weaker passing team (UConn averages 203.8 passing yards-per-game, ranking them 92nd. Their 336.8 yards of total offense has them at 114th), it sure would be nice to see his 17 passes defended (fourth) and 3 interceptions on the field.

His replacement last week, redshirt freshman Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 190), got burned on a play-action fake as a simple ‘pitch-and-catch to the tight end became a 38 yard TD, something I’m sure UConn offensive coaches noticed in film study. Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) is fifth on the defense in tackles with 49 from the other corner spot while adding 7 passes defended, an interception (returned 51-yards to the house), a strip and fumble recovery (taken 85 yards to the house). Wilson is also solid in run support, adding 2 forced fumbles.

The leaders of “The Jack Boyz,” safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) will look to have a field day in the box against this predominately heavy Huskies running attack. For the season, McDonald has 66 tackles, 5 passes defended, 4 QB hurries, 4 interceptions, 2 forced and recovered fumbles (deep breath), and a sack. Stewart’s ball hawking presence adds 54 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, 6 sacks, 5 QB hurries, 2 passes defended, 2 recovered and 1 forced fumble, an interception (and a partridge in a pear tree). The Coogs allow opponents to pass for 269.1 yards-per-game. The 106th ranking no doubt altered by allowing more than 500 to Cinci, while their 379.8 yards-per-game of total offense allowed has them at 53rd overall.

UConn’s special teams are much better in coverage than they are in the returns game. While punter Justin Wain (6’3, 214, RJr.) doesn’t have a great average, just 37.9 yards-per-punt, he’s forced 25 fair catches while placing another 13 inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. The Huskies allow only 3 yards per-punt-return, ranking them tenth nationally. The Coogs Demarcus Ayers wasn’t able to get on track last week as Memphis’s punter punted using a rugby style that led to bounces in which he couldn’t field, but still averages 11.9 on 21 returns so far this season.

Only 6 of Bobby Puyol’s (5’10, 178, RJr.) 16 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks while only 5 of Michael Tarbutt’s (6’0, 177, Fr.) 26 have crossed the goal line. With these 11 out of 42 total touchbacks, UConn’s kickoff coverage unit allows only 19.1 yards-per-return, ranking them 30th nationally. Last week the Memphis place kicker didn’t allow Brandon Wilson to return any kickoffs as he had all touchbacks. With UConn’s kickers appearing not to have too strong of legs, it’ll be interesting to see if Wilson’s 25.9 yard average can give the Coogs offense good starting field position.

Houston’s special teams, under coordinator Jason Washington, have both solid coverage and return games due plenty to place kicker Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) and punter Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.). Herman’s philosophy of not having Cummings kick touchbacks allows his kickoff coverage unit to allow opponents to average exactly 20 yards per return ranking them 41st nationally. Behind Piper’s 17 fair catches and 16 punts placed inside the 20, the Coogs punt return unit allows only 2.1 yards-per-return, ranking them SIXTH in the nation. This isn’t good for the Huskies as they are DEAD last in the nation averaging only .4 yards-per-punt-return. Of course they don’t have a large sample size as reserve corner Nick Vitale (5’8, 176, RJr.) and receiver Brian Lemelle (5’10, 172, Jr.) have a combined 5 returns for only 2 yards. Vitale has a negative-13 yards on his 3 returns and has been just fair catching punts lately. Newsome meanwhile averages 24.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns while the Huskies as a whole average only 19.4 per, ranking them 98th.

If the game comes down to a battle of field goals, the Huskies may have the hand as Puyol has connected on 12-of-14 attempts this season and 22-of-29 for his career. Cummings meanwhile only has 4 attempts, of which he’s made good on all of, with none being more than 39 yards out.

Keys to the Game

Only 11 teams in the nation have allowed more than the 32 sacks the Huskies O-line has allowed. Orlando loves to blitz on the other hand as his defense is 13th in the nation with 29 sacks. If UConn can’t protect Shirreffs it’s going to be a long day for the Huskies offense. Verducci also needs his unit to have success on early down in order to set up third-and-medium or short so they can move the chains. UConn is converting on only 32.6-percent of their third downs this season, ranking them 117th. If the Huskies are able to move the ball between the 20s, they convert TDs on only 14-of-29 red zone opportunities, ranking them 112th.

Offensively for the Coogs, no matter which QB plays, Applewhite must at least try to establish the run game with Farrow. And once they get in the red zone they must score TD’s which has been one of their strengths as an offense, crossing the goal line on 37-of-53 opportunities, ranking them 17th. UConn’s defense has held in the red zone however, allowing TDs on only 14-of-32 opportunties, ranking them 12th.

Turnover margin always plays a huge factor as the Coogs are first nationally, forcing 27 turnovers while committing only 9 on the season. The Huskies meanwhile are 18th, forcing 20 while committing only 13 turnovers themselves.

And last but certainly not least are penalties. UConn doesn’t beat themselves as they commit only 5.4 per game for 44.2 yards, ranking them 36th and 23rd respectively. While the Coogs have been getting better in this area, they still average 6.6 for 61.5 yards-per-game (81st and 90th).

Final Prediction:

Though Diaco is getting his program on the right track, they just don’t have the firepower offensively or defensively to stay with the Coogs over the course of the game. Houston pulls away late in the cool weather (predicted to be in the 50s), winning 30-13.

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