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UConn Football Opponent Preview: UVA

The Huskies travel to Charlottesville for their first road game, where they will meet their first non-conference FBS opponent of the season.

NCAA Football: Miami at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last year at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, the UConn Huskies and Virginia Cavaliers played what has to have been one of the worst-played games in the 2016 season. As the fourth quarter wound down, UVA drove down the field looking for a game-winning drive but missed a field goal attempt which would have tied the game to give the Huskies their second win of the season, 13-10.

It was supposed to be a solid campaign for the Huskies in Bob Diaco’s third season. The win advanced their record to 2-1, but UConn would only win one more game the rest of the way.

Winless at the time, UVA went on to win its next two, over Duke and Central Michigan, but those would be their only wins of the season. Surpassing two wins may prove difficult in 2017 with another challenging conference slate looming. Out of conference, the Cavaliers will play William & Mary and Indiana at home before hosting UConn and then visiting Boise State. They’ll need to win a couple of those to have a realistic shot at improving their win total.

2016 Season in Review

UVA opened last season with a loss to FCS Richmond and then took a beating at Oregon before the disappointing loss to UConn. They won their next two but lost seven straight to end the season 2-10 and land 88th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ overall efficiency rankings.

Key Departures

I’ll let SB Nation’s Bill Connelly take this one:

“Worse, this was an experienced team. Mendenhall must replace his two leading rushers, four of his top seven receiving targets, three experienced offensive line starters, four members of a nine-man rotation on the front seven, and everybody who kicked a ball last year.

Now, there weren't many difference makers in this group. But if you start slowly and finish 2-10, you’d rather do it with freshmen and sophomores. This was mostly juniors and seniors.”

We may be looking at the rare “Year Zero” in a head coaches’ second season. Mendenhall’s predecessor Mike London was a fantastic recruiter, so perhaps this turns out to be a good thing, but more than likely this season will not be one of marked progress for UVA football.

The two rushers lost to graduation are Taquan Mizzell (1344 yards from scrimmage, 7 TD) and Albert Reid (528 yards from scrimmage, 7 TD). In addition to being the team’s leading rusher, Mizzell led the team in receptions with 52 and was also fourth in receiving yards.

Offensive Outlook

The Cavaliers return ECU transfer Kurt Benkert at quarterback and his top two receivers from last year in Doni Dowling (50 rec, 626 yards, 4 TD) and Olamide Zaccheaus (51 rec, 584 yards, 7 TD). At running back, junior Jordan Ellis is the leading candidate for starting duties.

Up front, they lost three starters. Even though there are reinforcements on the roster via the transfer market, the turnover does not bode for a unit which allowed 36 sacks last year and struggled mightily in the run game.

Defensive Outlook

Luckily for Virginia, the Cavaliers have a solid, improving defense and, on September 16, it will meet a visiting offense with a history of struggles.

Middle linebacker Micah Kiser and defensive end Andrew Brown are the disruptors, combining for 23 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. They have a lot of up and coming talent around them in the front seven with great upside. In the secondary, senior safety Quin Blanding, a former 5-star recruit, leads the way. He and Kiser were named preseason AP 2nd Team All-Americans. Depth in the secondary behind Blanding is questionable, but there are some experienced players available at corner.

Matchup Against UConn

This will probably be a low-scoring affair once again, as both teams are defensively strong. Each team has reasons to believe that their offense will be better than last year’s, and to whatever extent that turns out to be true, it may be the difference in this game.

UConn needs to get the passing game going, as it will probably the path of least resistance against the UVA defense. At the moment, the Huskies are unsure if new starting quarterback David Pindell will have enough protection up front or proven options to throw to, but perhaps that picture may clear up over the first two weeks of the season. Virginia’s best bet offensively will be through the air as well given UConn’s inexperience in the secondary.

This Week Three contest will be a really good test for the Huskies which will help determine the trajectory of Edsall’s first season back with the program. UConn will probably not be favored, but could definitely grab a win here. If anyone is hoping UConn will win six games, the Huskies are going to need a victory.