As you are no doubt aware, the UConn football team will be playing its first bowl game of any importance on Saturday night. Randy Edsall and the Huskies are set to face mighty Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Night, with the eyes of the nation upon them.
On SBNation, the Big 12 champion Sooners are represented by the fine folks over at Crimson & Cream Machine. I was invited to be a guest on their podcast after the Fiesta Bowl matchup was announced, and now we've gotten together for a Q&A, as we drop football knowledge on each other.
The Q&A begins right now, and continues below the jump:
Crimson & Cream Machine: How much of a distraction have the head coaching searches been to UConn and now that the Miami job has been filled are the rumors starting to slow down?
TheUConnBlog: I don't know that they've been much of a distraction at all. No one's even entirely certain that Edsall interviewed anywhere else. Near as I can tell, it's all speculation, though I'm perfectly willing to believe that if there's smoke, there's fire. But even if we assume it to be true that Edsall interviewed somewhere, I don't think there's any reason to believe 1) he was serious about leaving* and 2) he didn't address any concerns the players might have had.
*Edsall's name comes up for jobs every year, but at this point, I'm starting to believe that he's staying here unless his name comes up for one of the college football megajobs, Penn State being foremost among them.
TheUConnBlog: Let's say you're UConn's offensive coordinator. What's the biggest weakness you can identify with Oklahoma's defense, and how do you exploit it?
Crimson & Cream Machine: Until the last two games of the season, Oklahoma's defense had been susceptible to falling for the play-action and misdirection. A lot of that was fixed when middle linebacker Austin Box returned from a back injury that had him sidelined from much of the season. His experience allowed him to take the proper pursuit angles and not get lost on counter plays. He also helped plug the middle of the field that at times had been a gaping hole for the Sooner defense.
Even in the Big 12 Championship the Oklahoma secondary struggled against the play-action pass but not to the extend that we'd seen throughout the season. Still, if you're looking for a point of attack against this Sooner defense then that would be a good place to start.
Crimson & Cream Machine: Oklahoma has thrived in the past against one dimensional offenses. We all know about UConn's strong rushing attack but will the Huskies be able to remain balanced with a solid passing game against Oklahoma?
TheUConnBlog: Short answer: No. Long answer: hell no, probably.
This season, Zach Frazer has played like he may very well be the worst quarterback in a BCS conference this year, and unless he's taking some sort of magical potion that will turn him into Sam Bradford, I don't expect that to change much on Jan. 1.
If he throws to the flat, it's almost always high or off-target enough to prevent the receiver from gaining many yards after the catch. If he throws over the middle of the field, he's probably stared at his receiver long enough to draw three defenders to knock the pass down. If he throws long, there's a 50:50 chance of an interception or a 20-yard overthrow. Every pass has the potential for trauma, and since UConn has played a bunch of close games this year, we fans have grown to be rather, shall we say, skittish every time he drops back.
It's been very strange and disappointing to see, actually, because Frazer was fairly competent towards the end of last season. Of course, last year, Frazer had an NFL-caliber wide receiver (Marcus Easley, who was drafted by the Bills) and last year, the playcalling was much more wide-open. Frazer has a cannon for an arm, but he doesn't 1) have the talent around him or 2) give the coaching staff much confidence to make me feel optimistic about his chances against the Sooners.
TheUConnBlog: Speaking of quarterbacks, it looks like Oklahoma has a fine one in Landry Jones. Two questions on Jones: how should UConn fans expect him to attack our secondary, and where does he rank among recent OU quarterbacks (back to, say, Josh Heupel)?
Crimson & Cream Machine: Oklahoma's passing game has been a bit predictable and yet unstoppable this season. The Sooners have so much speed that their game plan hasn't really changed much through the air. They'll use bubble screens and passes to the flats in order to get UConn to move their safeties up closer to the line of scrimmage. If the Huskies don't bite then Oklahoma will be fine to take 5 to 15 yards at a time but if UConn does move up their safeties then Landry Jones will start looking down field to Ryan Broyles or Kenny Stills.
To me, the development of Landry Jones has been fun to watch over the past two seasons. To others, not so much. I often say that Landry's biggest fault in the eyes of the Sooner Nation is that he isn't Sam Bradford. People often forget that he's just a sophomore and is developing along quite nicely. Now, that said if we were to rank him against all the quarterbacks dating back to Josh Heupel then I would put him at fourth on that list. Keep in mind that there are two Heisman Trophy winners and one runner up in that group. In my opinion it would look like this;
Crimson & Cream Machine: Since we've been talking about passing games, let's switch sides of the ball and discuss defensive secondaries. Tell us about the guys tasked with containing Oklahoma's All American receivers Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills.
TheUConnBlog: UConn's cornerbacks are OK, and the safeties are...something less than OK. I love Blidi-Wreh Wilson, our sophomore No. 1 corner. He has been an impact player for UConn this year, and I would love him to stay two more years. He's good in coverage, a hard hitter, and a solid tackler.
The other starter, Dwayne Gratz, and Taylor Mack have both showed flashes at times, but they are both a bit small (Gratz, like Wilson, is 6-foot even, and Mack is 5-9). They're also both young - Gratz is a sophomore, Mack is a freshman. Mack had a big game against Cincinnati's pass-heavy offense, with four solo tackles and two pass breakups.
Harris Agbor and Jerome Junior at safety are nothing terribly special. They'll take some bad angles and miss an occasional tackle, and every once in a while they'll allow a 20-yard completion on 3rd-and-15. I expect Stoops to pick on these two all day long.
The real problem for UConn is that they need to develop a pass rush in order to slow down the pass, and Edsall rarely dials up blitzes. They did it against Cincinnati, among others, but completely failed in that regard against Michigan and Rutgers. To stop Broyles and Stills, they will need to get to Jones with a four- or five-man rush; if they can't, it will be a high-scoring day for OU.
TheUConnBlog: Let's go from strength to strength, from OU's passing game to UConn's running game. Edsall loves to keep most of Jordan Todman's runs in between the tackles. How do you expect the heart of Oklahoma's defensive front seven to handle Todman?
Crimson & Cream Machine: This is my biggest concern regarding this game. Oklahoma did a good job against Nebraska's rushing attack in the Big 12 championship game but the overall body of work isn't great. For the season the Sooners finished 9th in conference against the rush, allowing an average of 151.8 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. That's not necessarily a confidence builder when you're facing the nation's 5th leading rusher.
The defensive tackle position has been a work in progress all season but the guys in the middle had their best game of the season against Nebraska, led by Price Macon who had five tackles for loss. I would suspect the Sooners to try and man up on UConn's receivers and stack the box against Todman. That puts a lot on Oklahoma's secondary but even though corners Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst are first-year starters they've been more than solid this season which should allow safeties Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson to provide over the top support or run coverage. Oklahoma can also insert nickel back Tony Jefferson in various situations to provide either a blitzer or pass and run support depending on the situation.
Oklahoma's linebackers are fast and strong and can deliver a hit. They're not necessarily prototypical NFL size but their speed and pursuit angles put them in place to make plays and they complete them more often than not. Strong linebacker Ronnell Lewis may be the hardest hitting player of the Bob Stoops era.
Crimson & Cream Machine: Let's switch to special teams. Tell us about UConn's return game and place kicking.
TheUConnBlog: Well, special teams is kind of the reason why UConn is playing in this game. In the win over South Florida, that won the Huskies the Big East championship, their MVPs (other than LB Lawrence Wilson, who returned a pick-six) were the kicker, Dave Teggart (4-for-4 on field goals, including setting his career long in the fourth quarter, and then bettering that with a 51-yarder in the final minute to win it) and the punter, Cole Wagner (6 punts, averaging over 50 yards per, most of which were downed inside the 20).
Wagner has been very on and off this year, but Teggart has been something of a revelation. UConn has been burned in the past by terrible, terrible kickers, but Teggart has become a decent weapon. He's 23 for 29 this year, and that includes a rather shaky 7-for-11 start.
Our punt return game isn't anything spectacular (just 8.52 yards per game, no touchdowns), and hasn't been since the glory days of Larry Taylor in 2006 and 2007 (if that name doesn't ring a bell, he's this guy).
Kick returns, though, have been a different story. Nick Williams, a 5-10 sophomore, is averaging almost 40 yards per return and has gone the distance on two of his 11 returns. I can't even really explain it; Williams isn't particularly fast (witness the slowest 100-yard kick return in history, non-fat guy division), but he has good vision and good enough speed (plus some pretty good blocking, too) to get the job done. Kick returns have been a big plus for UConn all season.
TheUConnBlog: Final question for you: What would be more upsetting to you as an Oklahoma fan - losing to a UConn team that is established in the popular conscience as the biggest underdog in BCS history, or losing to Texas ever?
Crimson & Cream Machine: Its always disappointing to lose to Texas, in anything, but let's keep perspective. Winning the Big 12 Championship and a BCS bowl game are team goals at the beginning of the season. Beating the Longhorns is a part of that process but not a goal itself. Oklahoma doesn't define their football season by a win or loss over any one school. That seems to work for Texas though. They can beat the Sooners, then choke off the opportunity to play in the Big 12 Championship game, watch Oklahoma win the Big 12 Championship, give themselves an asterisk, beat their chests and call it good. Oklahoma demands, and expects, more than just a win over Texas. I guess that's the long way to say, losing to UConn would be much more disappointing.
Mmm...that's some good Texas hate. Thanks to the fellas at Crimson & Cream Machine, and make sure to check them out as we draw ever-closer to kickoff Saturday night.