The time for talk is over.
The time for hitting, throwing, catching, running and drinking crappy beer in old East Hartford airfields is now.
Backed by eight months of rejuvenation and preparation, the Bob Diaco-led Huskies feel ready to go tonight against heavily favored BYU.
By the end of this piece, you will, too.
The visiting Cougars enter 2014 as a team aiming to break into the top echelon of college football following consecutive 8-5 campaigns. In fact, the program's past three seasons can be summarized by the same second-class tale: BYU beats every opponent that it should and then falls closely to all the rightful Top-25 teams on its slate (that's not you, 2013 Texas).
Consequently, the Cougars have been camped out in "receiving votes" territory since the days when Adele first
wailed sang her way into the Billboard charts.
To prepare for tonight's game I broke down BYU's final three contests of 2013, each of which provided an enlightening glimpse of the team's schemes and personnel in its own way.
The loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 23 shared how the offensive coaches chose to attack a Diaco defense as recently as nine months ago and, in turn, how he did for them. When the Cougars next topped Nevada in their regular season finale, we saw them battle a Wolfpack team that was the closest in caliber of all BYU opponents last season to the 2013 Huskies, per Bill Connelly's advanced F/+ metric.
And lastly, BYU's 31-16 defeat in the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl to Washington offered the most recent, revealing tape on most players that will trot out of the away team tunnel this evening.
Unfortunately, it is going to be impossible to know every one of the 22 Cougars who will start tonight, until kickoff arrives. Even with an available depth chart, we can only be less than certain because of this thoughtful tip from BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall earlier in the week.
"I would be leery of the two-deep and [I would] say, ‘man, Monday's depth chart, the 25th, I am not promising that is going to be Friday night's depth chart," Mendenhall told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Though there are, of course, some sure bets: quarterback Taysom Hill, running back Adam Hine, linebacker Alani Fua, etc. And when you push all of those bets into the middle, you'll find an offensively explosive, defensively reworked and overall well-coached football team.
Thus, the first test of the Diaco era will be a trying one. Thankfully for UConn, it won't have to win tonight in order to pass. The Huskies must simply play a sound game and not beat themselves. But if they were to come away with an A+ victory, this is how they'd do it.
30.2 points/game (55th in the country)
Returning players with starting experience: 20
Key players: QB Tayson Hill, RB Adam Hine, RB Paul Lasike, WR Mitch Mathews
The phrase they use out in Provo to describe offensive coordinator Robert Anae's style is "go fast, go hard."
The phrase we'll use for watching tonight's game from a UConn perspective will be even shorter:
Anae had the Cougars operating at a 19.5 seconds per play clip last season that rang up nearly 86 snaps a game. His offense is a run-heavy attack, featuring a multi-faceted ground game that includes zone-read, quarterback keepers, option variations and some power schemes. And, most importantly, Anae's playbook also contains a counter for each one of those foundation run calls to keep you on your toes.
Through the air, BYU's approach becomes a bit simpler. Hill is almost always directed to read only one half of the field, thanks to either a designed moving pocket, formation structure or limited number of downfield releases. The route combinations aren't overly diverse, (you'll see smash, hi-lo, slant-flat, spot and others) but his screen game can get creative, particularly when they're built off option run looks.
Pre-snap, the Cougars set up exclusively in the shotgun and, in my opinion, work best when they're methodically pounding away at teams from 20 personnel (two running backs, three wide receivers).
You will see BYU split out frequently with four receivers, but Anae's system truly only needs three solid pass catchers to be effective. This season that fact becomes a great luxury given many of the Cougars' top wideouts from 2013 graduated, and yet there's still hope to replace them. Reportedly, Hill and his new receivers worked heavily on the deep passing game in fall camp, which is highly important to this offense and leads us to our final point.
Ultimately, BYU aims to be a big-play attack. The unit's top-15 national ranking in total yards last fall wasn't due to consistently gained chunks of eight, 10 or 12 yards, rather a high number of snaps genereated by tempo and big plays, As effective as the Cougars could be at sustaining long drives, they actually haven't been terrific in that department.
And truthfully, their goal isn't to keep bending you until you break.
They want to break you and then do it again as soon as possible via the run or the pass. Neither Anae's playbook nor the roster it lives through are put together to regularly convert long third downs, a major weakness last season, as was red zone efficiency.
But the dangerous quarterback Hill is getting better and, as you'll read below, containing his various talents will be paramount.
Let's get this out there first: the over/under on the number of plays Hill unabashedly takes your breath away tonight is roughly 6.5. The junior signal caller is a remarkable athlete, who finished 10th in the country last season with a personal average of 330 yards per game. Whether by design or when scrambling, he is an excellent runner carrying a rare combination of strength and speed.
From the pocket, Hill is confident in his ability to fit balls into tight windows on short and intermediate routes, despite a career 54.6 completion percentage that should indicate otherwise. Hill's accuracy struggles on gameday correlated well with the team's level of success, as BYU went 1-3 last season when Hill failed to connect on at least half of his passes.
As detailed above, he is often focused solely on one side of the field during a designed pass play. If his first and second reads are covered, Hill will take off. Keeping contain in these situations is critical.
The other primary runners UConn must worry about are tailbacks Adam Hine and Paul Lasike. Lasike is a former rugby player, who would have fit perfectly in the college and pro game of 30 and 40 years ago as a hard-nosed, powerful back. The New Zealand native also broke out for over 100 yards against Diaco's Irish defense in 2013.
On the other hand is Hine, the back-up to suspended starter Jamaal Williams, who projects to receive the majority of handoffs tonight. He's got speed to burn and vision beyond his years, qualities that first helped him develop into a terrific kick returner. When Hine needs a breather, 230-pound sophomore Algernon Brown will step in.
Outside the numbers, Husky corners may need to grab a ladder.
6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews returns as the Cougars lone receiver to have made significant contributions in 2013. Prior to a season-ending shoulder injury against Wisconsin in November, the junior wideout snagged 23 passes for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns. Opposite Mathews will be 6-foot-3 teammates Jordan Leslie, a former No. 1 receiver at UTEP, and Ross Apo. The senior Apo possesses above average physical tools, which he hasn't been able to showcase often due to injury.
Elsewhere, 6-foot-6 tight end Devin Mahina collected seven catches over 2013, including four against Boise State. Juniors Terren Houk and Kurt Henderson could also figure in the BYU passing attack against UConn, despite hauling in a combined six receptions last fall.
Up front, the Cougars offensive line could be special. Last year, this group rotated through countless different lineups, yet still paved the way for the 10th-best rushing attack in the nation. Overall, I expect this BYU line to demonstrate it's remains more adept at run blocking than pass protection, which bodes somewhat well for a pass-rush-starved Husky defensive front.
Bookending the line are 6-foot-7, 330-pound monsters Ului Lapuato and De'Ondre Wesley. Lapuato, a freshman, has quickly gained the trust of the offensive staff, enough so that he's listed as the starting left tackle. On the right side, Wesley brings with him nine starts from a year ago and a good fall camp.
Next to Wesley will crouch either Tuni Kanuch and Brayden Kearsley, guards who both move well in space and have received praise in house for their off-season work. In the left guard slot should stand Kyle Johnson and at center Terrence Alletto. Each started double-digit games in 2013, though their first-string status is in question with so much talent behind them.
This summer, Diaco was adamant that UConn players have improved their core fundamentals. Come 10:30 tonight, we'll know if that's true.
The Cougar offense presents a number of discipline tests for opponents that will exploit the Huskies if they falter in sticking to their assignments, keeping contain and tackling well. Last November, the current UConn headman and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator deployed a gameplan largely designed to keep Hill and co. in front of the Irish. He utilized loads of zone coverage, specialized personnel groupings and blitzes on obvious running downs.
For the most part, it worked.
However, the Huskies are less athletic than last year's Notre Dame defense was, so their margin for error will be smaller. I expect Diaco to keep the conservative zone coverage playcalls against the mobile Hill and the Cougars' taxing pace. Not to mention, he himself told reporters last week his defense is still at a basic level with its new playbook, which consequently shrinks it.
So the main aim here would be to patiently wait for BYU to make some early-season mistakes and take advantage. It is noteworthy that Hill will not have his top weapons tonight due to graduation, injury and suspension. Therefore, UConn ought to force the junior to stick in the pocket, lead long drives and hope he errs in the process. After all, the Cougars did stall something fierce in the red zone last year, which would help the Huskies almost above all else.
Personally, I would also try to hasten the mistake making via an occasional slot blitz to add speed to the Husky pass rush, shrink the field on Hill and attack his half-field passing game. Of course, no play-call no matter how theoretically effective will be of importance if UConn gets dominated at the line of scrimmage, which is a concern.
BYU pounded Notre Dame and Diaco up the middle during the second half of their game last fall, particularly with quarterback runs, and nearly won the game late. If the Cougars enjoy that kind of success prior to intermission tonight, the Huskies will be in grave trouble.
22.1 points/game (22nd in the country)
Returning players with starting experience: 10
Key players: LB Alani Fua, FS Craig Bills, LB Bronson Kaufusi, DB Jordan Jackson
The principles of the BYU defensive playbook was actually broken down in this very space eight months ago upon Diaco's hiring, when I shared the essence of his 3-4 system at Notre Dame. The Cougars run a highly similar system predicated on three defensive linemen occupying blockers up front to allow linebackers to flow to the ball.
There's a mix of two-gap and one-gap principles, which could lean further in one direction than the other depending on how the new Cougar linemen developed in camp. BYU's front seven underwent a major makeover this summer, having waved good-bye to five first-stringers, including NFL second-round pick Kyle Van Noy.
Defensive coordinator Nick Powell will blitz from a handful of varying angles , though generally speaking, he prefers simplicity and execution over disguise and multiplicity. Last season, the Cougars felt comfortable with their base defense and nickel package keeping up with opponents' no-huddle attacks due to decent athleticism at most positions.
BYU often played a rotation of the same zone coverages against up-tempo teams and slower attacks. Against spread teams that employed wider splits with their receivers, Cougar corners were essentially left on islands outside the numbers (a common ploy in today's college football), forced to work in man-to-man and then picked on.
While opponents could still have success against the BYU pass defense this season, it won't be because of formation structure and a lacking secondary. Much of that group returns, though the same cannot be said of the players up front, who provided them with at least a decent pass rush one year ago.
All eyes should be directed to the revamped front seven, but we'll start with the back four because it has the talent to mesh into a very good unit. The senior Bills was all over the Notre Dame tape, racking up 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception. From only a single game, it was easy to understand why the Provo native has played in every single game of his career with good instincts and range.
Sophomore Dallin Leavitt is the youngster among the starting defensive backfield at the other safety spot, having played in all 13 games as a freshman. Another second-year player, Michael Davis, is a converted wideout who owns the title of fastest player on the team, speed he'll use from nickel position. Outside corners Jordan Johnson and Robertston Daniel are both savvy seniors with All-Independent first team accolades to their names from one season or another.
At the second level, it will be up to Fua and Kaufusi to maintain the reputation developed by last fall's Cougar linebackers as one of the nation's top groups. Fua is a versatile, experienced senior on the strongside that I like a lot, while Kaufusi has moved from his home on the defensive line to weakside linebacker. He has the necessary athleticism to play out in space, having suited up for BYU basketball, but if he's really to most often from a two-point stance, the mental game for him will be much different.
The inside linebacker spots tentatively belong to 6-foot-1, 235-pounders Zac Stout and Manca Pikula. The aptly named Stout returns after a season away from the gridiron, and Pikula notched just 17 tackles last fall, somehow in addition to a 3.5 sack total good for second best on the team. Their collective inexperience could play a major factor in UConn's offensive success, if the Huskies can take advantage of it.
And the same goes for the starting linemen. Teams soft in the middle are subject to exploitation through the run and the pass, which puts a lot of pressure on new nose tackle Travis Tuiloma. The sophomore checks in at only 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, more than 20 pounds lighter than his primary opposition tonight, UConn center Alex Mateas. Of course, the battle in the trenches isn't so much a fight on the scale as it is for leverage, which Mateas has lost in the past.
Junior Remington Peck is the only starter to return from last year's defensive line. He recorded 38 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss and a pair of fumble recoveries, while helping to hold opponents to a mere 11 rushing touchdowns all season. Peck's bookend on the left side is Graham Rowley, who earned three starts in 2013 even after leaving for the program the season before for a year-long church mission.
None of the BYU big bodies up front own an array of pass rush moves, meaning when the Cougars drops into eight-man coverages, there's no reason even an inexperienced UConn line shouldn't hold up most of the time.
The plan here should be simple.
First, the Huskies must pound newly dubbed starter Max DeLorenzo up the middle behind their best lineman in Mateas and straight at BYU's soft interior. If they're unable to gain yards between the tackles, it's going to be a long night regardless of the rest of the gameplan.
Sprinkled in with those gut, power and dive plays ought to be multiple forms of play-action. UConn needs to test the discipline of those new inside linebackers and attempt to cash in for quick scores on big plays, as any underdog must. And the target of those deep bombs should often be Geremy Davis. Every opponent from 2013 knew the now senior captain was the Huskies' favorite target in the passing game, and the 6-foot-3 catching machine still got the job done at a high level.
That won't change this fall.