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UConn Blog Predictions and Open Thread: Villanova at UConn | TV, 7:30pm, SNY/ESPN3

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A few selected members of The UConn Blog's staff offer their predictions for the season as we approach the kickoff to 2015. Share yours in the comments and stick with us for the first football open thread of the season!

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports


First Half Recap: UConn down 9-6 to Villanova


Bob Diaco is turning this program around, and it showed with the way the Huskies started this game against one of the best teams in FCS. Unfortunately, the Huskies followed a dominant first quarter with a sluggish second stanza that has them facing a 9-6 deficit at the half.

The Huskies won the toss and deferred, then promptly forced a three-and-out. New starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs lead the Huskies to an inspiring 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 14-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore TE Tommy Myers. Myers bobbled it at first but was able to make the catch and power through a couple of defenders for the score.

Villanova's ensuing drive ended with a sack-fumble play where Foley Fatukasi caught John Robertsons legs for a sack, causing Robertson to drop the ball, which was recovered by sophomore Luke Carrezola. The Huskies, unfortunately, went three-and-out after gaining possession.

Offensively, the Huskies leaned on Ron Johnson, who ran with downfield with purpose to start but tailed off as the half wore on. When Shirreffs threw, he was either getting it out really quickly, or using play-action or roll outs to keep the pass rush in check.

Roberston then led the Wildcats on a 73-yard drive, highlighted by a 22-yard scamper on 3rd and 22 to keep the drive alive. Unfortunately for the visitors, Steve Weyler's 24-yard attempt missed wide right.

The Wildcats then forced a safety when left tackle Andreas Knappe was called for a holding penalty inside the 5-yard line.

Some poor tackling ailed the Huskies on the Villanova drive following the free kick, as Robertson led the Wildcats into the UConn red zone. The award-winning quarterback completed the drive by reading a corner blitz perfectly to give Villanova a 9-6 lead with just under two minutes left.

The Huskies took the ball following a touchback with 1:36 left in the half and made it deep into Wildcat territory, but unfortunately Tommy Myers bobbled a pass again and this time it was caught by a Villanova defender for an interception. Villanova kneeled the ball to end the half.

***

We're just 20 minutes away from kick-off! Our staff got together to throw out a few predictions for the upcoming season. This is also the open thread where you can discuss the game's events and share funny GIFs with your fellow fans!

Question No. 1: Who will be the breakout star for this UConn team?

Tyler Morrissey (former Managing Editor, Daily Campus, UConn Blog contributor):

If he has somebody to throw him the ball, Noel Thomas. The instability at the quarterback position has plagued UConn for a few seasons now. In order for Thomas to reach his full potential, there needs to be at least one solid starter under center this season.

Ben Cantor (UConn Blog staff):

Thomas Lucas. With Noel Thomas receiving most of the preseason hype, I expect Lucas, the 6-foot-2-inch redshirt sophomore out of Silver Spring, Maryland, to establish himself as reliable No. 2 option with an ability to stretch the field for Bryant Shirreffs and the Huskies.

Ben Zachs (UConn Blog contributor):

Ron Johnson. He will get the opportunities and the run blocking will be stronger than pass blocking. I expect much of the offense will come from the power run, setting up screen passes and dump offs to Arkeel Newsome for bigger gains. I love Noel Thomas' chance, but I cannot trust the pass blocking.

Daniel Connolly (UConn Blog football staff):

Noel Thomas. He's gotten some hype around here, but he's definitely under the radar in the rest of the conference. With a better quarterback, I don't see why he can't elevate to a top tier receiver.

Aman Kidwai (UConn Blog manager):

Arkeel Newsome. He earned the right to split time with Ron Johnson and, nominally at least, a starting spot. In practices, he has appeared less tentative than he did before and, according to Bob Diaco, the fumbling which plagued him last season has not been an issue. The Huskies offense will be a spread out, power run, quick strike passing offense designed to get its playmakers the ball in space. Newsome broke a few big plays last year. With more playing time this season, he should have a breakout season and give Husky fans something to be really excited about.

Tim Fontenault (UConn Blog assistant manager)

Tyraiq Beals. I reached for Beals in the fifth round of our fantasy football draft, because I think the little guy has a chance to make a big impact in the passing game. It can't be Noel Thomas every time, and Thomas Lucas and Brian Lemelle are not the most exciting No. 2 and No. 3 in college football. Diaco has said several times Beals will get his shot. Expect him to take it.

Where is an upset by UConn most likely to occur?

Tyler Morrissey: I like the Huskies to take down Navy at home. What better way to welcome the Midshipmen to the conference than by handing them a loss on the road. The Huskies will be coming off a tough game (most likely a blowout loss) to Missouri, might be a good place for Bob Diaco and company to pick up the pieces.

Ben Cantor: At Cincinnati, I like UConn against the favorite to win the conference this year, much like the Huskies' upset win against last year's class of the American, UCF.

Ben Zachs: Does Villanova count? If I want to go out on a limb, I will say UCF.  Their players may laugh at the sideline trophy all game. Still, we'll win a trophy.

Daniel Connolly: GIVE ME MISSOURI. Kidding, I'll take UCF. If you think Bob Diaco isn't going to get them pumped out of their minds for the ConFLiCT, you don't know Diaco. For real, for real.

Aman Kidwai: I'll go with East Carolina. UConn kept it close on the road against a really good team last year. This year they'll get the southern team on the road late in the season. The Huskies have (hopefully) gotten better and the Pirates are expected to take a step backwards.

Tim Fontenault: Tulane. Why is that an upset? Because, as I mentioned in my game-by-game prediction, UConn only has four wins on the road since Randy Edsall left. The Huskies looked awful against a bad Tulane team in New Orleans last year. They will turn it around this season.

Will Bryant Shirreffs finish the season at quarterback?

Tyler: No. Purely based on the fact the quarterback position has been a revolving door. If Shirreffs stays healthy maybe he will be the one to stick. Time will tell.

Cantor: Shirreffs WILL start at all 12 games this season, barring injury. The dual threat gives UConn an option they haven't had since (I guess) Tyler Lorenzen (also No. 4!!).

Ben: If healthy, yes. If there is an injury, I think Anderson will get the next shot. Sorry for copping out, but our history speaks to injuries from bad o-line play.

Daniel: Bob Diaco seems to really be putting his money on this kid. Right now, he's either the future or the bridge to the Tyler Davis era. I've been predicting this team to a bowl at 6-6, so if he isn't the QB at the end of the season, it clearly went south very fast.

Aman: I'll go with yes. I think Shirreffs can be the game manager UConn needs to run an efficient offense and give the defense enough rest to be dangerous for four quarters. Remember he's just a sophomore, but Diaco and his staff seem to hold Shirreffs in high regard. He seems like the kind of leader who can help the Huskies turn this thing around.

Tim: Shirreffs will be the starter throughout 2015. He will be the starter in 2016. He will be the starter in 2017. He's smart. He's tall. He has an arm, unlike many past quarterbacks. He can run the ball. If he stays healthy, it's Shirreffs' team.

Over/Under 600 rushing yards for Ron Johnson?

Tyler: Under. What was once a great run game, one that was feared has been reduced to more of a slow walk. Johnson only rushes for more than 600 yards if the offensive line can get their act together.

Cantor: Ron Johnson WILL rush for over 600 yards this season, as he establishes himself as the early down running back for what will be a very run- heavy system this season. He is easily the Huskies' most reliable back heading into the season.

Ben: Over

Daniel: Under. While I think highly of Johnson, I don't think highly of the O-line. Mix that with him splitting carries with Newsome, along with Shirreffs being a running threat as well, and I just don't think he's there.

Aman: Under. There will be too many mouths to feed at running back with Johnson, Newsome, Max DeLorenzo and Josh Marriner.

Tim: Over. He'll go for 650 to 700 yards. Johnson is going to start getting the majority of the carries, and Newsome will get the catches out of the backfield.

Over/Under 600 yards receiving for Noel Thomas?

Tyler: Despite UConn's issues under center, Thomas is a hell of an athlete. You can expect him to lead the team in receiving yards.

Cantor: Noel Thomas will NOT have over 600 receiving yards this season. Instead, that distinction will go to the man across the formation, Thomas Lucas.

Ben: Over

Daniel: In Bob I Trust. He says Noel Thomas is having a breakout year, so I'm on board.

Aman: Over. Thomas will be UConn's No. 1 option, and I think they'll have a moderately successful season in the passing game, actually. There are a bunch of secondary receiving options, but Thomas will be the one constant.

Tim: Over. Thomas is the No. 1 option. As I said, Lucas and Lemelle are iffy backup options. Thomas will be the big-play guy.

Who is your pick for Team MVP at the end of the season?

Tyler: Graham Stewart is the senior linebacker anchoring this Huskies defense. This summer he was named to the Lombardi Award watch list for the best linebacker in the nation. Husky fans can expect big things from Stewart this season after he made 94 tackles last year, the third-highest on the team.

Cantor: Andrew Adams. He is the type of player that always finds a way to make game-altering plays, or in Bob Diaco tongue, GAPs. Adams will earn his way onto NFL draft boards come the end of the season.

Ben: Andrew Adams (Defense). Rob Johnson (Offense). In my dream, Andreas Knappe is the MVP.

Daniel: Andrew Adams. The front seven will be good. All those are good players. But Adams is the only known quantity in the secondary. He'll hold them, and therefore the defense, together through youth struggles.

Aman: Bryant Shirreffs.

Tim: Graham Stewart. He is the driving force of the defense, even though he is not officially a captain in his senior year. He has made several big plays for UConn the last two seasons. He will be the defensive hero again.

And finally, what will UConn's record be to end the season?

Cantor: 7-5

Ben: 5-7. Nova, Army, USF, South Florida, Tulane and another win we will sneak out. There is better preparation and stronger belief this season.

Daniel: 6-6. If Casey Cochran's career doesn't end, I think we win AT LEAST 3 more games, if not more. The schedule is tougher, but with all the underclass men who played last year, we will see a big jump from many of them. The only question mark is at offensive line. Shore and it up and see where Bob can take us.

Aman: 4-8, but a really solid and competitive 4-8. This is a hard schedule and UConn is still a very young team. 6 wins and a bowl can definitely happen, but there are just too many question marks for me to feel comfortable predicting it.

Tim: Remember this tweet from UConn cornerback Brice McAllister.

The Huskies will go 4-8, but a good 4-8. UConn is a year away from going back to a bowl game still, but the second year of the Bob Diaco era will bring with it a marked improvement. I think it starts with a loss to Villanova, but UConn will top Army, Tulane, East Carolina and USF, demonstrating promise for the future.