After two weeks on the road, the UConn football team returns home Saturday to cap off homecoming week against South Florida.
The Huskies (3-3, 1-1 American) enter their matchup with the Bulls (2-3, 0-1 American) fresh off a 40-13 rout of Central Florida for the team’s first road win under head coach Bob Diaco. Running back Arkeel Newsome was a key factor for the Huskies, racking up 257 all-purpose yards, including 106 yards on kick returns. Newsome was named American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Week for his effort.
In the last three games, Newsome has displayed an ability to excel in both the passing game and the running game, leading the team with three rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. He also leads the Huskies with 305 rushing yards and has become to go-to option in the backfield due his speed and elusiveness.
“He’s an explosive player. He’s an electric player. He’s doing a real nice job,” Diaco said. “He’s producing, he’s productive in the conference, even in kickoff return, he’s doing a nice job there.”
Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs also shined in last week’s win, throwing for 256 yards and one touchdown, marking the fourth time he has thrown for over 200 yards in his six career starts. After carving up a porous UCF secondary last week, Shirreffs will have a taller task against the Bulls, who rank third in the American in total defense, allowing 352.8 yards per game.
“He’s starting to really mature in his game, mostly because of how coachable he is. His receptors are wide open, and he’s very critical of himself, not in a destructive way, but in a very productive way,” Diaco said of Shirreffs.
In order for Shirreffs and the Huskies to have success against the Bulls, they will have to continue to target tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom.
“We like throwing the ball to the tight ends,” Diaco said. “We like running our offense with tight ends. ... They’ve become a weapon.”
Both tight ends each have 149 receiving yards, with Myers adding two touchdowns. While Bloom has yet to find the end zone this season, he has recently evolved into one of Shirreffs’ most reliable targets, making five catches for 78 yards in UConn’s last three games.
Myers has been a factor as well, recording a catch in five of the Huskies’ six games and creating matchup problems by being able to lineup nearly anywhere on the field.
“Tommy (Myers) can attach on the line of scrimmage and detach in the slot. He can get in the backfield and move around,” Diaco said. “When a guy can do those things and create overloaded formations, defenses need to adjust accordingly. And then when you do that, the guys can detach and become functional receivers, it’s a problem on defense.”
Much like the Huskies, South Florida is coming off of a big win of its own, a 45-24 win over Syracuse. The Bulls’ 45 points were the highest the team has scored against an FBS opponent since 2011. As a team, USF racked up 541 yards of offense, including a career-high 259 passing yards from Quinton Flowers, who threw for two touchdowns and ran one in in the victory. USF running back Marlon Mack added 184 yards and two scores, averaging 9.2 yards per carry.
“I was so impressed with so many things, I really was. They have a dynamic rushing attack, it’s awesome. It’s basically triple-option. They’re attacking the dive, the alley, and the force on every down.” Diaco said. “They have a couple of dynamic playmakers.”
Containing Mack could prove to be a problem for the UConn defense. The Huskies rank sixth in the American in rushing defense but have struggled against run-heavy offenses like the Bulls this season, who rank third in the conference and 18th in the country with just over 224 rushing yards per game. Earlier in the season, the Huskies surrendered 303 rushing yards in a 28-18 loss to Navy, who ranks fourth in the country in rushing offense.
“The tailback is one of the best in the country, physically and statistically,” Diaco said of Mack.
With the Huskies sitting at .500 halfway through the season and coming off an important conference road win, the team is primed to start the second half on a high note knowing that a win against the Bulls makes becoming bowl-eligible a legitimate possibility.
For that to happen, the team will need to continue to rely on it’s senior leadership, who have helped this team grow to a point where they can contend for their first bowl game since 2011.
I’m so pleased with the guys, in particular the seniors,” Diaco said. “I’m pleased with where the team is, I’m pleased with the leadership from the seniors and how they’ve been a strong backbone for the younger guys to follow.”