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UConn football: Defense shows life in homecoming victory

It wasn’t pretty at the end, but the defense did enough to give the Huskies their first winning streak since 2015.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

For most of this season, the UConn football defense has been a major weakness by almost any metric.

Heading into this week’s matchup with Tulsa, the Huskies ranked dead last in the country in passing defense, surrendering over 392 yards in the air per game. They’ve also given up at least 30 points in four out of their seven games this season, including a 70-point outburst from Memphis on Oct. 6. Last but not least, the defense overall was rated 126 out of 129 in the latest S&P+ ratings.

Despite all these issues, the defense turned in its best performance of the season, shutting out Tulsa for more than three-and-a-half quarters to secure the Huskies’ third win. After an encouraging performance last week against Temple, UConn’s showing against the Golden Hurricane shows the defense is on its way up.

“There were some things that took place in that game that we’ll be able to correct,” head coach Randy Edsall said. “We did have opportunities to put them away and we didn’t take advantage of that. We just have to figure out kind of what happened there in the last five minutes.”

Even with more than three quarters of shutout football, the win over Tulsa was anything but easy. For the final eight minutes of the game, the Huskies’ defense looked more like the unit that surrendered more than 700 yards in the 70-31 loss to Memphis than a unit that held the Golden Hurricane scoreless for as long as it did.

After being down 20-0, Tulsa rattled off two scores in a six-minute span to make it 20-14. Through the first three quarters, the Golden Hurricane had 86 passing yards. With more focus on the passing game in the fourth quarter, Tulsa threw for 173 yards, torching the UConn secondary to move the ball methodically and have a decent chance at stealing a victory as time expired.

As Tulsa questionably got off a play with one second left, Golden Hurricane quarterback Luke Skipper scrambled around before lofting up a pass in the end zone that was knocked down by linebacker Junior Joseph.

“The quarterback started scrambling so I stayed with [the receiver] throughout the whole play,” Joseph said. “I just saw the ball and made a play on it...I was glad I was put in that position to help my teammates.”

Even while the defense was playing well, the unit was still burned by some big plays. The Huskies surrendered five plays of at least 25 yards, including a 31-yard pass to open the game and a 50-yard play with 51 seconds left to play.

But as much as the defense bent during the game and towards the end, it never completely broke. The unit showed enough competence and growth to make it clear that the unit is at least headed in the right direction.

“To hold them for zero points for three and a half quarters and 14 points overall, that boosted our spirits” linebacker Vontae Diggs said.

For most of the game, UConn was able to keep Tulsa off the board by putting pressure on the quarterback, largely impart to some adjustments made by Edsall and defensive coordinator Billy Crocker.

“We went to a four-man front in some passing situations,” Edsall said. “A lot of times, pass rush is just effort. I think they guys’ effort has been better.”

Prior to the Tulsa game, UConn had just 10 sacks on the year. This game alone, the Huskies had five, with Foley Fatukasi and Cole Ormsby accounting for four of them with two each.

“You have to work hard, you have to understand your assignment,” Fatukasi said. “I feel as a defense that’s what we’ve been doing, as a team that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re just understanding things a lot better.”

On top of the QB pressure, UConn was able to force another turnover, with freshman Jordan Swann picking up his first-career interception in the end zone to prevent a score. While it was a poor decision on Tulsa quarterback Luke Skipper to throw into triple-coverage in the end zone, Swann able to make the play and stop the drive in its tracks.

As this relatively-young defense continues to gain experience, it could continue to improve across the season. Crocker and Edsall will continue to tweak the scheme and personnel as necessary to keep the Huskies competitive as they face offensive juggernauts like UCF and USF in the coming weeks.