UConn football’s 31-20 loss to Utah State in the opening weekend of the season was competitive until the end, despite controversial officiating and injuries to key players on offense. The Huskies held their own against the reigning Mountain West champions, a clear improvement from their 49-0 humiliation against Fresno State in Week Zero of the 2021 season.
There are plenty of positives that UConn football will be able to take from the first game of the season, and still more areas of improvement for the team to work on next week against Central Connecticut State.
Overall, a great result
Dan Madigan: While the loss was a tough one to stomach at the end of the fourth due to the Huskies being so close, Jim Mora and the team defied all the expectations and had a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter. UConn was a 24-point underdog prior to kickoff, but didn’t trail by more than 10 until the Aggies’ late score put them up 11. There was real competence in just about every facet for significant stretches — a vast improvement from previous seasons. It’s only been one game, but it’s clear Mora has already made a difference for this team from a strategy and roster perspective.
Aman Kidwai: Beat Syracuse, imo.
Roberson, Marion injured
Madigan: The strong performance against Utah State was blemished by injuries to starting quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson and wide receiver Keelan Marion, who were both injured in the first half and are expected to miss significant time. While true freshman Zion Turner looked solid as a replacement and Tyler Phommachanh is on the way back from his torn ACL last season, these two injuries definitely impact the ceiling of what this team can accomplish this year.
Kidwai: Losing Marion after also losing Cam Ross before the season started is a rough blow the receiving core. Things may be alright still due to decent depth at the position but losing those top-end talents is extremely unfortunate. At QB, the Huskies are now turning to Zion Turner. Offensive coordinator Nick Charlton was probably already planning to run the ball a lot, and now UConn’s passing attack is further weakened. They’re lucky to have a tune-up opportunity next week against CCSU before facing the meat of the schedule.
Nathan Carter is for real
Luke Swanson: The running back’s 190 yards on the ground was the highest mark for a UConn rusher since David Pindell’s last season with the Huskies, and his elite 9.5 yards per carry kept the Huskies’ offense rolling even well after their starting quarterback exited the game.
Despite being listed as the second running back on the depth chart, Carter led the team in carries as expected, and did the most with what the offensive line gave him. Charlton’s rushing offense was basic but well-designed, mixing in power and trap concepts with a splash of zone blocking thrown in, and Carter hit the hole decisively, making smart cuts and breaking tackles in a way we saw glimpses of in the 2021 season. Carter will continue as the Huskies’ lead back and primary offensive weapon going forward.
Madigan: Watching Carter barrel through defenders and rip off big runs reminded me so much of some of the great UConn offenses of old. He’s clearly benefitting from improved line play and has the speed, strength, and vision to take advantage of getting to the second level. I’m excited to watch him continue to develop this season, and I think he has the potential to be one of the better running backs to come through Storrs in years.
.@UConnFootball running back Nathan Carter has been the best player in college football today. He has 18 carries for 186 yards rushing, and has been every bit that dynamic against a really good Utah State team.— Shehan Jeyarajah (@ShehanJeyarajah) August 27, 2022
Offensive line is a mixed bag
Luke: Let’s start with the good: UConn’s offensive line got push up front in the running game for the first time in years, especially on the inside. New starting center Jake Guidone and guard Christian Haynes were maulers up front, paving the way for Carter to put up gaudy numbers. The starting running back was often five yards down the field before encountering a Utah State player on inside runs, but it’s worth noting that it was tougher going when running off tackle.
The Huskies’ offensive line struggled mightily with pass-blocking. After Roberson exited the game, Zion Turner had pocket awareness of a freshman but the offensive line had him scrambling quite a bit. Turner didn’t get sacked, but frequently was hurried in the pocket and forced to throw on the run and across his body, setting up two interceptions.
Jackson Mitchell’s legit
Luke: Jackson Mitchell has been a tackle machine in the center of some truly bad UConn defenses, ranking third in the country among true freshmen in tackles in 2019 and leading the team in tackles with 120 in 2021. The middle linebacker stalwart could have easily departed the program with the exit of Randy Edsall last year, but stuck with the team and showcased his talents to a national audience on Saturday.
What a game yesterday by #UConn LB Jackson Mitchell (#8). 16 tackles (!!), 1 sack, 1 FF and FR (took the ball out of RB’s hands) just overall monster game.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) August 28, 2022
Finished w/113 tackles last year and well on page for that in 2022. pic.twitter.com/h9AAeuiC6C
Mitchell led both squads with 16 tackles and seven solo tackles, tying his career high. The junior was all over the field, shedding blocks and making life hard for the Utah State running game. Mitchell wasn’t the only player thrown into a starting position too early in his freshman year over the past few seasons, but he’s carving out a career as a leader on the UConn defense and should continue to do so in the rest of the season.
Kidwai: Mitchell is demonstrating true NFL potential. If he can keep this up, his frame and athleticism make him an enticing prospect at the next level.
Zion Turner’s living on the edge
Luke: Thrust into a starting position in his first-ever college game, Zion Turner learned some hard lessons on Saturday with a sub-.400 completion percentage and two interceptions. He was throwing on the run for much of those snaps though and the offensive line struggled to protect the true freshman, leaving him to make awkward throws across his body.
After review, the touchdown is GOOD! @UConnFootball takes a 14-0 lead in the first quarter! pic.twitter.com/kQstylpNLv— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) August 27, 2022
Despite the inconsistent pass protection, Turner had some solid throws including fitting one into a tight window for the second touchdown of the day, showing the arm talent he demonstrated at St. Thomas Aquinas and in flashes at fall camp.
If Turner is the starting quarterback going forward, the rest of the season will continue to be a learning experience for him. Mora and his staff have until the North Carolina State game week to decide whether he’ll continue as starting quarterback or redshirt this year.
Noe Ruelas has a boot
Madigan: With starter Joe McFadden out for the season with a knee injury, Noe Ruelas has shown he is up to the task of kicking duties. With UConn down 10 in the fourth, Mora went to Ruelas twice and the kicker delivered, converting 47 and 54 field goals, the latter of which was the longest in UConn’s FBS history. He also sent all of his kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.