Even though the UConn Huskies earned a much-need win against Villanova last Thursday, they enter preparation for Army with a lot of areas needing improvement and a completely new mindset. This game will certainly be different from the season opener, but also, if you ask the coaches and players, different from the Army game last year.
When asked about the improvements he hopes to see in his team this week, Bob Diaco's initial response focused on the players' conduct on the field.
"We need to be sure that the team plays in a way that represents our culture," Diaco said in his weekly press conference Tuesday. "It's a culture of composure and self-control. So that's an area that needs to improve. In terms of all the jaw-jacking and losses of self-control, that's not what we do, that's not who we are, that's not who we're going to be. It won't be tolerated."
Diaco was referring to UConn's multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, like the one which Folorunso Fatukasi committed leading to his ejection late in the game and suspension for the first half this Saturday. Fatukasi's penalty negated a third-down stop, while running back Ron Johnson had a first down run taken away by committing a taunting penalty.
Diaco would go on to name special teams and getting the defense off the field on third downs as other areas he expects his team to be better.
There is also the matter of Army's triple option attack. Each defensive positional group will deal with slightly different challenges compared to facing a more traditional offense. Army's offensive line also uses a lot of cut-blocking which the Huskies will need to be prepared for.
While the triple option is getting a lof of publicity, UConn should be able to handle it well. Their defensive discipline was tested against John Robertson's Villanova offense, and many of those principles carry over to stopping Army. Moreover, after playing them last year, Diaco should have a good sense for how to defend it.
"You cannot let them run fullback," Diaco said. "If they're going to run fullback and gain significant yards, you're going to lose. (And) if they throw explosive shot-passes downfield you're going to lose. That was a hallmark of the game last year."
Jeff Monken is in his second year at the helm of the Army football program after being hired from Georgia Southern, where his Eagles made the FCS semi-finals three years in a row. After going 4-8 in his first season at West Point, his sophomore campaign got off to a rough start with a loss to FCS Fordham on Friday night.
It doesn't help that his Army team is very young, perhaps even younger than UConn. They have a first-year quarterback, sophomore Ahmad Bradshaw, who moved the offense well in his first game as a starter. But he will be facing a much tougher test against the Huskies defense. The team is really young across the board, even many of the upperclassmen don't have a lot of game experience. This caused a few breakdowns in the offensive line and on special teams against Fordham that will need to be corrected.
UConn will enjoy a considerable size and strength advantage in this game. Army's starting offensive line averages 273 pounds while their three-man defensive front averages just 257 pounds. Regardless of the scheme, the Huskies should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Weight isn't everything, but for comparison's sake UConn's starting offensive line averages 307 pounds and their three-man frontline of Kenton Adeyemi, Mikal Myers (in place of the suspended Fatukasi), and Julian Campenni averages 306 pounds.
As a result, the Huskies should have an easier time running the ball than they did against Villanova. The Wildcats knew UConn wanted to run a lot, and maybe put a little extra effort into stopping the run. They also had some pretty good defensive linemen. But Bryant Shirreffs proved that he can be dangerous throwing the ball. Look for the Huskies to try to take a few more shots deep, since pass protection may fare better in this game, and in the interest of keeping the defense honest.
Winning the battle on the line of scrimmage is critical in football, which is why the chances of a UConn victory seem pretty high. If the offense gets the running game going and the defense can contain the triple option, the Huskies should make relatively easy work of their first FBS opponent based on what we have seen so far.
With so much positive energy following the Villanova win, to start the season winning two straight would be a huge lift before UConn's trip to Missouri, where they are certain to be huge underdogs on the road.
UConn Football has a chance to be 2-0 for the first time since 2008, and match their win total from last season. There is actually some excitement around the program as the Huskies appear to be moving in the right direction in their development. There are still fans and followers of the program (locals, recruits, parents of recruits) who were unimpressed with the win over Villanova. Hopefully UConn can put a dominant performance together this Saturday to continue making gains in the public perception battle.