At 1-7 for the season, UCONN’s record belies what amounts to being a relatively scrappy football team. It’s lost five of its seven games by 10 points or less, and it’s got two running backs in Victor Rosa and Cam Edwards who average more than 50 yards per-game (72 yards per-game for Cam Edwards, but he’s missed two games and still has 71 rushes to Rosa’s 78).
As a team, the Huskies have run the ball a total of 261 yards for 1,249 yards, equaling out to nearly 140 yard on the ground this season. While those numbers won’t blow your doors off, they’re on par with FBS teams like Michigan and Georgia, who both rank around the 50s in the NCAA. Not bad for an FCS team, even with this year not going as planned, considering Mora led the team to a 6-7 record in his first year as Head Coach at Connecticut last season.
Starting quarterback and former Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Robinson isn’t the problem, but he’s likely not the solution, either — even though he’s hitting on close to 58 percent of his passes and has thrown eight touchdowns to just three interceptions. As a junior, he took over the starting job from senior Joseph Fagnano when Fagnano went down with a season-ending injury in the second game of the year.
But Robinson has filled in relatively fine — per ESPN, he’s sitting at a 122 passer rating, and he’s only been sacked five times so far this year. He’s a bit more of a threat to run the ball, with 30 carries for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Tennessee’s line will need that dominant push from the middle of the defense to collapse to the pocket, and the ends will need to keep contain on the edges to make sure Robinson doesn’t get a chance to hit any long runs.
The offense’s thumb in the dam looks like it might be its receiver room, where no player has more than 31 catches or 338 yards in eight games. Junior Cameron Ross and senior Brent Buckman both have 31 grabs, but sophomore tight end Justin Joly has UCONN’s longest reception of the year at 59 yards. He’s only caught 26 balls, but he might be somebody to watch for on Saturday
Defensively, senior linebacker Jackson Mitchell leads the team by a wide margin with 81 total tackles, but the player with the next-highest tackle figure is defensive back Durante Jones who’s got 51 total stops. The defense doesn’t have much of a pass rush, as Mitchell has just one and defensive lineman Pryce Yates leads the team with 3.5 sacks. As a team, UCONN has just 11 total sacks for the year.
But — they’ve got five takeaways this season, with all five being interceptions. Plus, they’ve deflected 19 passes (just five fewer than the Vols) at the line of scrimmage, so the second and third levels of the defense will need to keep their heads on swivels in case of the UCONN defensive linemen gets a paw up and all the sudden it’s a tip-drill situation.
I don’t expect Tennessee’s first-teamers to play much into the second half, as this is the last chance to get some young guys some live-game reps. But who knows? Maybe Joe Milton has an inaccurate day, and the youngsters don’t see the field.
In Mora’s press conference, he touched on playing in an environment like Neyland Stadium, Tennessee’s defense and his opinion on Josh Heupel, amongst other topics.
Mora’s opening statement:
“Great challenge this week,” Mora said.
“Great opportunity to measure ourselves against a great team in Tennessee and see where we are as a program and see where we’re growing as a program and I think our guys are going to be focused and it’ll be a really great opportunity. I think we’re really looking forward to it.”
On how to game plan for UT’s defense:
“They’re big, they’re fast and they’re physical and extremely talented,” Mora said.
“How can we gain an advantage in both the run game and the pass game? Is there somebody that we can try to take advantage of? Is there something we can do to cross them up? How can we get an edge in the run game. What are they going to do in terms of pass rush and how do we have to adjust in protection? It’s the same thing every week. It doesn’t matter who you’re opponent is. They’re going to oppose problems for you and things that you have to scheme. This week just happens to be a really, really, really, really good defensive football team.”
“And the same thing offensively,” Mora added.
“What is their scheme? What are they trying to focus on? What do they like to do against certain looks? Does the quarterback have someone he favors? Is there a weakness up front that you think you can take advantage of. What are their tips and tendencies you can lock into to give yourself just that half a step or, shoot, sometimes less than half a step that you need to make a play. It’s kind of the same every week it’s just this week, like I said, you’re going against a big, fast, physical, talented football team that has little to no weakness.”
On playing in front of 100,000 fans when nobody thinks you can win:
“It’s fun to compete,” Mora said.
“These guys are competitors and they love to compete. Just put the ball down, let’s line up and let’s go. That’s how they’ve been their whole lives— our players, I’m talking about, and their players. Players are competitors in general. So that’s the fun part of it. The competition. The measuring yourself. The testing yourself. The overall overcoming adversity, handling success, the bond that you create with the guys on your team. The fight against the other team and the respect that you build and the respect that they build for you— that’s what’s fun. T crowd never matters to us. We know it’s going to be loud, but to be a good football player, to be a good performer in anything you do you have to be able to cut out the distractions and all that matters is what happens between the lines on that green field. So that’s what we have to be able to do and I’m confident we’ll be able to go down there and try to block out all the distractions and we’ll focus on what’s important. That’s the 11 guys they line up and the 11 guys that we line up and the situation we’re in.”
On what he thinks of Josh Heupel:
“I don’t know him,” Mora said.
“I’ve never met him. The only time I’ve ever been on a football field around him is when I was doing a game with ESPN and he was at UCF and they played Cincinnati. I think he does a really good job of recruiting talented players and putting them in a position to make plays. But I don’t know the man. I have a lot of respect for him, certainly.”
I found the Heupel answer a little back-handed, maybe? But I’m probably reading too much into it. I do that quite often.
The last spread I saw was somewhere around 37-ish points — whaddaya think? Do the Vols cover?
We’ll find out tomorrow, with kickoff set for 12 PM EST.