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UConn football: Takeaways from the Huskies’ loss to Illinois

UConn showed both volatility and promise in their first defeat of 2019.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Against Illinois, UConn put up a strong fight against a power five team. Given recent history, Saturday was a clear sign of progress for the program.

Through stretches of chaotic play, a true freshman starting quarterback, a defense that seemed at points equal and other times completely outmatched, UConn was able to pull within a score despite ultimately losing to the Fighting Illini.

Here are our takeaways from the game.

The Zergiotis Experience is here to stay

After a surprise announcement half an hour before kickoff, Jack Zergiotis showed flashes in his first-ever start as a true freshman, with a snazzy 21-31 performance, throwing for 275 yards in the air. Beyond the box score, he made a few effortless throws down the field to his big targets, Ardell Brown, Cameron Ross and Jay Rose, something we didn’t see from Mike Beaudry in his start against an inferior opponent.

He also made a bunch of freshman mistakes. He stayed in the pocket for far too long multiple times, resulting in three sacks in the first half alone, and never quite looked comfortable between the tackles. He had a few tough interceptions and a boneheaded fumble, all of which are correctable.

Still, when Zergiotis was throwing the football, it was accurate enough to inspire some hope in the fanbase, and he showed enough to head coach Randy Edsall for him to name Zergiotis the starting quarterback going forward. The Huskies’ new starter also has a confidence level that is endearing.

The defense might be inconsistent, but at least it’s not horrible

At times on Saturday, UConn’s defense looked like it belonged to a totally different team. Defensive backs were swarming to an unsuspecting Illini in the flats, Travis Jones and Kevon Jones were wreaking havoc on the Illinois offensive line and D.J. Morgan (more on him later) was making life hell for the opponent.

At other times, flashes of the old UConn began to slip through. A few long gainers kept the Huskies’ yards per rush allowed from impressing, and the defensive backfield blew some coverages, but they weren’t frequent enough to allow Illinois to pull away. We still saw a lot of arm-tackling.

The flashes they showed were huge improvements over anything the Huskies demonstrated on that side of the ball last year, and it gives me confidence that a win or two are definitely in the cards for UConn this year.

DJ Morgan might be the Huskies’ best offseason pickup

Quietly, Morgan had the best game of any Husky on defense. 11 tackles, two of them for a loss, 1.5 sacks (one that forced a fumble with Illinois threatening to put the game out of reach), and a pass breakup highlighted his impressive Saturday.

Morgan now has 18 tackles on the year, leading the team through two games, acting as a leader on a senior-less defense.

Play calling

In UConn’s three scoring drives in the first half, the playbook was as wide open as can be. Then with the lead in hand, Frank Giufre and co. clammed up, sending Kevin Mensah and Art Thompkins on inside runs (with their starting tackle and leader Matt Peart out, no less) and calling routes short of the first down markers. This strategy was repeated on scoring drive in the second.

Part of it can be attributed to the offensive weapons that the Huskies have now, that they didn’t have last week. Cam Ross and Ardell Brown were both projected to be starters, and both were out on week one. UConn needs to use the offensive firepower that it does have and not stifle its offensive creativity because it holds the team back.

Check out our interview with breakout linebacker DJ Morgan below and more post-game player interviews here!