Lost in all the recent talk of a new quarterback and interim head coach is the fact that tomorrow, UConn has a game to play.
But, this is no ordinary game.
It is the Huskies’ first conference contest as a member of the AAC.
It is this year’s homecoming game.
And, as we all know, it is perhaps the first chapter of a new era.
Standing in the way of a smiling start are the South Florida Bulls. Prior to their victory last weekend over Cincinnati, the Bulls seemed to be the only thing between UConn and the title of no. 1 laughing stock in all of college football. Now the Huskies are the ones looking for a win, though they do have some hope.
Under new coach Willie Taggart, USF opened its season by receiving a 53-21 home beatdown courtesy of FCS McNeese State. In the subsequent weeks, the Bulls showed marginal improvement, as they were only outmatched by a combined score of 49-16 going against Michigan State and Florida Atlantic. Soon after, Miami blew the door off of its neighbors to the north, 49-21. The Hurricanes scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, and held a 49-7 lead into the final quarter.
Then came the win over Cincinnati. Coach Weist told the media in his weekly press conference that USF schemed his old team well, and after watching the tape, it’s hard to argue. Touchdowns scored on special teams and defense in the first half helped, too, of course. But more importantly, the Bulls’ athleticism provided constant problems for a sluggish Bearcat offense.
These two things—high activity on defense and non-offensive scores—will once again be the keys for USF to achieve victory on Saturday. Just like all of their prior games, USF is an underdog this Saturday by six points. The biggest reason for this setback is a hamstring injury that has hampered star running back Marcus Shaw. Shaw is the best weapon the Bulls have, and by a considerable margin.
Now, you’re going to laugh when you read this, but USF’s offense is similar to that run by last year’s NFC champion, the San Francisco 49ers.
Built on a power running game, this Bull offense will occasionally put an extra lineman on the field and operate frequently from the pistol. Bull running backs receive their hand-offs primarily behind man blocking, while the passing attack this season has been set up regularly with play-action. These play fakes are intended to take pressure off of quarterbacks and limited wide receiving corps.
USF has started three different signal callers this season, and each owns a completion percentage below 50 percent. Penn State transfer Steven Bench was the last Bull to get his turn, though he suffered a leg injury against Cincinnati and is unlikely to start. Former walk-on Bobby Eveld will take his place. Eveld is a 6’ 5" senior from Tampa, and a very capable scrambler. As is the case with all quarterbacks who have seen the field for the Bulls in 2013, when Eveld’s first read is covered, his instinct is to take off and run.
Eveld sustained many drives against the Bearcats with his legs, though none of them ended in touchdowns. To be fair, Eveld did not have the benefit of giving the ball to Shaw, who exited with his injury in the first quarter. The trio of backs Shaw leaves behind, Michael Pierre, Ryan Eppes and freshman Darius Tice, are largely unimpressive. Pierre does have some quicks, but could only manage 61 yards on 16 carries against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Eppes is a redshirt senior, who owns negative one-yard rushing over the last three seasons, and Tice is an unknown.
Downfield, senior Andre Davis is the biggest receiving threat for the Bulls. He enters this weekend on a streak of 23 consecutive games with a recorded catch. His 6’ 1", 202 lb. frame is nearly identical to that of Byron Jones, who ought to match up with Davis frequently in two days. The junior is capable of catching balls at all three levels of the field, runs refined routes and does a nice job of mixing releases, but does not possess overly dangerous speed.
The same cannot be said for back-up Derrick Hopkins. Hopkins is a two-time Big East 100-meter champion, and presently stands as the team’s fourth-leading receiver with nine receptions. Tight ends Mike McFarland and Sean Price are sandwiched on the stat sheet between Davis and Hopkins, as the second and third leaders in caught balls. McFarland is highly athletic, but a bit slow in getting off the line. The Bulls love to hit their tight ends on third down with intermediate strikes.
USF has thrown the same five offensive linemen in every game so far this season, with the exception of freshman Dominique Threatt. Threatt will be making his third start and is the third Bull to attempt to plug the team’s hole at right guard, a position that opponents have attacked with good success. Like many first-year college players, Threatt struggles to get good push in the run game and plays a bit high. Center Austin Reiter struggles similarly, though this is because he tips the scale at just 273 pounds.
UCONN Key to Success: The Huskies must be able to stop the Power-O and deal with the extra lineman. None of the available quarterbacks will be able to consistently beat them with his arm, so this also requires pass rushers to stay disciplined in their rush lanes. Don’t expect an exotic variety of calls or blitzes.
For all the yards and points that the Bulls have allowed, this defense has done very well in two other key areas: turning the ball over and red zone performance. The Bulls have recorded four turnovers in their last two games, and allowed opponents to score a touchdown on only 58 percent of their trips inside the 20-yardline. The issue has been the number of trips teams have taken down there.
As mentioned above, the athleticism of this unit is its greatest asset. Tim Boyle, Steve Greene and coach Weist all spoke earlier this week about how actively the USF defense plays and the problems that poses. Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan will have his group rotate between three and four-man lines, but does not dial up much pressure. Star linebackers Dede Lattimore and Reshard Cliett remain on the field for nearly every snap, as mainstays in the Bulls’ base 4-3, nickel and dime packages.
Up front, USF will often rotate in varying combinations of a total of 10-12 linemen. Back-up Ryne Giddins leads the group with a pair of sacks. The man ahead of him, Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch, is perhaps the most physically gifted amongst all ends. Lynch can switches between two and three-point stances, though his responsibilities are mainly to rush the passer.
Inside, defensive tackle Luke Sager is top on the team with five tackles for a loss. 300-pound James Hamilton and senior Anthony Hill often handle the nose tackle duties in three-man lines. Hill has also been seen lining up at tight end for the Bulls.
Through just four games, USF has already tripled its interception total from a year ago. The man they have most to thank for that is strong safety Mark Joyce. Joyce is currently first on the club with a pair of picks, and also third amongst all Bulls in tackles. Teamed with fellow senior JaQuez Jenkins, the pair brings over 75 career starts to the back end. Corners Brandon Salinas and Kenneth Durden are serviceable, but the team does miss its leader from a year ago, Kayvon Webster, who became a Denver Broncos third-round draft pick.
UCONN Key to Success: Protect Boyle. USF does not bring an overwhelming pass rush, but the biggest wrench that could be thrown into his development is constant pressure. Poor habits are difficult to fix on the fly, and now that the freshman is starting, the onus is on him to get this team going. The men up front have to do their jobs.
PREDICTION: UConn 20 USF 17
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