The Huskies are back to Zach Frazer at quarterback, one of three quarterbacks who have started this season. Frazer started the first four games of the season which included trips to Michigan and Temple, with home games to Texas Southern and Vanderbilt. The Huskies won the home games, and lost the road games. During those first four starts, Frazer completed 47-of-81 (58.0%) for 553 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception.
After some musical chairs at the position--which included Cody Endres taking over for the next two games, followed by Endres being suspended for the season and replaced by red shirt freshman Michael Box, Frazer returned to the starting lineup two weeks ago against West Virginia. Frazer didn't have a breakout performance against West Virginia, but he played well enough to lead UConn to its first ever win over West Virginia. He is playing with a high level of confidence right now.
"He has a good arm," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "His pocket presence is there. I'm not sure how many sacks he gave up. The games I've watched, he hasn't really been getting sacked that much. He's playing well."
Once again, UConn has a tough running back. This time, it's Jordan Todman. Even if the Huskies lose, Todman is still a factor. He has averaged 136.3 rushing yards a game--which leads the Big East. The only game he didn't rush for 100 yards in this season was the 26-0 loss at Louisville three weeks ago. In that game, Todman still rushed for 80 yards.
"We need to stop the running back," defensive end Sheard said. "He's a tough guy, just like last week. We have to stop him and force the pass game."
The one thing that is different from Todman as opposed to other UConn backs in the past, is that instead of the traditional power back, Todman is equally dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield. Todman had four catches for 28 yards in the win against West Virginia--the team's second-leading receiver that night.
"He has really good hands," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said of Todman. "They'll throw him the ball on a lot of screens and flare passes. He's a complete back. He's not one of those guys that you can really zero-in on and say ‘when he's in the game he's only going to run three plays.' They'll throw it to him as much as it is handed to him."
Even though Frazer is playing with more confidence right now, and that Todman is the centerpiece of the offense, the Huskies like to spread the ball around. They don't have a go-to receiver, but the quarterbacks--despite the revolving door of starting quarterbacks--have averaged throwing passes to six receivers a game.
The only 100-yard game of the season belongs to Michael Smith (6-0, 202), who had 130 yards on just four receptions with a touchdown against Buffalo. Smith also had a season-high seven receptions against Temple the week before. While Smith is a bigger receiver, Kashif Moore (5-9, 180) is more of a slot-type receiver. Moore leads the team with three touchdown catches on the year.
The receivers might not have the numbers to back it up, but they have the personnel that is capable of making plays at any time.
Once again, the UConn offensive line presents a challenge. Since joining the Big East, regardless of who they lose--to injury or graduation--the Huskies have always been able to run the ball successfully behind a big offensive line.
"They're big," defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. "We've faced big o-lines before. They play pretty disciplined. They can be quick off the ball. They're pretty strong. I think if we go out there, we just have to be disciplined in how we play. I think it will all turn out okay."
In addition to paving the way for Big East leading rusher Todman, the line has allowed the fewest sacks of anyone in the conference--nearly one sack allowed for every 25 passing attempts. The Huskies have had to battle injuries, including losing starting left tackle Jimmy Bennett--a one-time Pitt recruit--to injury. They have used four different combinations of starting offensive linemen, but have used the same set for the last two weeks. Despite the different combinations of starters, Todman has rushed for over 100 yards in every game except for one, and the pass protection has been consistent.
At left tackle is junior Mike Ryan (6-5, 333), left guard is senior Mathieu Olivier (6-6, 294), center is junior Moe Petrus (6-2, 292), right guard is senior Zach Hurd (6-7, 325), and right tackle is sophomore Adam Masters (6-4, 283).
Much like their offensive counterparts, the defensive front four is a physical crew. There's no question going against each other in practice benefits one another, just as Pitt‘s offensive and defensive line has the same benefit of lining up against each other in practice every day. UConn's defensive line is a little bigger than the defensive lines Pitt has faced this year, most notably defensive end Kendall Reyes (6-4, 298) who will give us a glimpse of what it might be like when T.J. Clemmings develops.
The Huskies also have a bigger set of tackles in Shamar Stephen (6-5, 300) and Twyon Martin (6-2, 292). The other defensive end is sophomore Jesse Joseph (6-3, 255), who leads the team with 5.5 sacks. Trevardo Williams (6-1, 225) started the last game against West Virginia.
Though the scheme is similar to Pitt's, in that the front four brings pressure, Pitt is expecting the Huskies to keep eight in the box.
"They play a eight man front," left tackle Jason Pinkston said. "They're playing the run. They're a physical group. It's hard football, and they play tough."
Have any other teams shown success breaking up the box by switching over to the pass?
"Not really," Pinkston adds. "We just have to keep pounding at them--one play, two plays--just keep going. They're very sound up front."
From what a few of the Pitt players have seen in the UConn linebackers, they're looking at players who are not only capable of stopping the run, but players who are capable in making big plays (turnovers, tackles for losses) in stopping the run.
"Their linebackers are very good," running back Ray Graham said. "I have to give credit to all of them. All of them can do something. It's going to be tough."
Starting in the middle is senior Lawrence Wilson, whom the defense is built around. Wilson--like Pitt‘s middle linebackers of the past--is designed to make all the tackles. He leads the team with 84 tackles. Strongside linebacker Scott Lutrus is almost big enough to be a defensive end (6-3, 245). Second on the team with 66 tackles is weakside linebacker Sio Moore, who has 66 tackles on the season. He also leads the team with 10 tackles for losses. Moore is also tied for the team-lead with a pair of forced fumbles.
In addition to running the football, having a solid foundation of an offensive line and being physical on defense, the UConn secondary has also been a strength. The Huskies lead the Big East with nine interceptions, and have returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns.
"They lead the league in interceptions and they've given up the least amount of sacks," Wannstedt said. "There are some true statistics and facts that support the success that they have had and the challenges that we have come Thursday night."
Interestingly, the Huskies have started five different groups of secondary members this season. Corners Blidi Wreh-Wilson (6-0, 191) and Dwayne Gratz (6-0, 187) and safeties Jerome Junior (6-1, 215) and Mike Lang (5-11, 181) are expected to start this week.
The beauty of UConn's secondary as that all of them are threats to pick off the ball. While Pitt's defense has a strength at safety (Jarred Holley - four interceptions, Dom DeCicco - three interceptions), quarterbacks have tended to throw away from the middle of the field knowing there's a safety presence there. For quarterbacks facing UConn, it's a bit more of a challenge, because seven different players have picked off passes this year.
Wreh-Wilson and Junior each have two interceptions on the season. Wreh-Wilson has returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns, while Junior returned one of his for a score. Wreh-Wilson may be the best cover corner the Panthers see in Big East play this year.