After falling to South Florida at home last Saturday, the UConn football team hits the road to take on Cincinnati in their 12th matchup in a series that dates back to 2001.
The Bearcats (3-3, 0-2 American) lead the all-time series 9-2, including a 41-0 win over the Huskies (3-4, 1-2 American) last season at Rentschler Field. The Huskies head to Ohio looking for their first-ever win at Nippert Stadium, where the Huskies are 0-6.
At his weekly press conference, UConn head coach Bob Diaco talked about the matchup against the Bearcats as well as the state of his own team. Diaco is a little more than halfway through his second season in Storrs.
Uncharacteristic performance for defense
Normally, the defensive unit is one of the Huskies strengths. Even before Diaco, the Huskies relied on stout defense to keep the team in games. For most of this season, the UConn defense has continued that legacy, ranking among the best in the conference.
However, the defense turned in one of its worst performances of the season, allowing 461 yards in the 28-20 loss to USF. Despite the struggles last game, not all hope is lost for the defense. They still remain one of the best units in the conference, ranking second in total defense and first in pass defense. The defense also ranks 29th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 20 points per game.
“We don’t have force issues. We don’t have busted coverages. So down the stretch, we have three just flat busted coverages, just simple alignment issues and one guy just got cut loose. We don’t do that. We had force issues. The ball doesn’t go outside of our force player,” Diaco said. “The ball doesn’t get outside our defense. We keep it inside. We call that force…For that to not get accomplished is disappointing."
Marquise Vann’s leadership
Saturday’s game against the Bearcats marks a homecoming for redshirt senior linebacker Marquise Vann. After leading the team with 105 tackles last year, the captain from Cincinnati, Ohio has done much of the same this season, recording 20 tackles in just six games after missing one due to injury.
While Vann has seen the field a little less this year due to the emergence of fullback turned linebacker Matt Walsh, Vann’s experience and leadership has been one of the main reasons the UConn defense ranks among one of the best in the American and ranks 38th in the country in total defense.
“He’s doing a great job, doing all he can,” Diaco said of Vann. “He’s working on how to become a better player, but he gives it up for his brothers, he’s helpful, and he’s a lead-by-example kind of guy and he’s doing a nice job.”
Offense shows improvement
The offense has shown signs of life this season, and it exploded for a historic offensive performance in the home loss to the Bulls. The Huskies racked up a season-high 528 yards of offense, and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs became the first player in UConn history with over 300 yards passing (356) and 100 yards rushing (100).
Despite the offensive outburst, the Huskies failed to turn the huge yardage numbers into points. Even though the team’s point total failed to match up with success on offensive, Diaco believes more performances like this are on the way, largely due to their ability to protect the football.
After turning the ball over 25 times last season, the offense has done a much better job taking care of the football this season, turning the ball over just eight times (five interceptions, three lost fumbles).
“I believe that the players are just taking more of accountable ownership when they have it, and that’s on a day-to-day basis,” Diaco said. “They really do a nice job at practice of working that in any time they have the ball in their hand, being very careful with it.”
Taming the Bearcats offense
Cincinnati’s offense ranks among the best in the conference, leading the American in passing offense with 358.2 yards per game and third in scoring offense, averaging 36.5 points per game. The Bearcats are unafraid to spread the wealth in the passing game, but are led by wide receiver Shaq Washington, who averages 6.5 receptions a game for Cincinnati. Washington has record a reception at least two receptions in 19 straight games.
Quarterback Gunner Kiel was supposed to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country this season, but has missed the last two games recovering from a head injury he suffered against Miami of Ohio Sept. 19. Redshirt freshman Hayden Moore has done well in his absence, going 83-144 for 1,280 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. With Kiel still recovering from his injury, Diaco and company will need to prepare for both quarterbacks as they get ready for this week.
“They’re awesome on offense. They have the best group of wide receivers that we’ve played up to this point and maybe arguably all season. They have impact players at all positions. You’ve got matchup issues in every single spot. They have a big offensive line, which is fine, we’ve played big offensive lines before, but they have really talented [running] backs.”
Brian Lemelle possibly out
Diaco announced that WR Brian Lemelle will may miss the game vs Cincinnati due to a lower extremity injury he suffered against South Florida.
Lemelle has two catches this season for 27 yards and has served as the primary punt returner, returning two punts for 15 yards this season. The junior also had returned two kickoffs for 24 yards in the first two games of the year until Arkeel Newsome and Josh Marriner took over kick return duties.
“Lemelle has a lower extremitt issue that’s going to prevent him from participating for an undisclosed amount of time, so we’ll need to be ready to go with another punt returner at least if Lemelle isn’t cleared for participation on Saturday,” Diaco said.