After months of anticipation, most of it coming from head coach Bob Diaco, UConn football travels to Orlando, Florida to take on Central Florida in “The Conflict.”
Diaco created the rivalry out of respect for UCF’s success as a program and to try and create a rivalry in a truly national American Athletic Conference that features teams as far west as Texas. Since joining the American three years ago, UCF has been the conference’s most successful football program, its most successful moment coming in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl with a win over Baylor.
“Just trying to add some positive, fun energy to a football game and a conference, and a half of a conference. It’s just cool. I think it’s cool. I hope other people do,” Diaco said on creating The Conflict. “It’s something to energize the players and staffs on both sides, hopefully energize the fan bases on both sides so that we can have a great energetic game that’s classy and with high character.”
The Huskies will bring The Conflict trophy down to Orlando on Saturday with hopes of keeping it for a second-straight year and taking the all-time lead in the series. Last season, the Huskies defeated the Knights 37-29 at Rentschler Field to hand UCF their first-ever loss in the American. Prior to that, the nationally ranked Knights blew out the Huskies 62-17 in 2013 in Orlando.
“We put both scores on there (The Conflict trophy),” Diaco said. “We’re trying to do the right thing, so that it’s taken as it’s intended to be taken, which is quintessential college football.”
UCF enters The Conflict with a disappointing 0-5 record after being picked to finish second in the American’s East division behind Cincinnati in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Knights’ poor start can be largely attributed to numerous injuries to key players already this season such as running back Dontravious Wilson, wide receiver Jordan Atkins and starting quarterback Justin Holman, who broke his right index finger in a 31-7 loss to Stanford Sept. 12.
However, Holman will return under center for the Knights against the Huskies in his first game back from injury. Holman threw for 2,952 yards last season with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In two games this season, the junior quarterback threw for 249 yards and two scores with no interceptions.
While Holman’s return was questionable until being confirmed Thursday, Diaco and the UConn defense prepared for his possible return this entire week, as well as Bo Schneider and Tyler Harris, who have filled in for Holman at quarterback this season.
“Both freshman are big, strong, smart, tough. Listen, we expect to see (Holman). So we’re expecting to see all of the guys,” Diaco said.
While UConn’s defense has been for the most part steady all the season, the offense has started to sputter after showing promise in the first two games of the season. During the Huskies’ three-game losing streak, the Huskies have been outscored 67-37. Despite a lack of visual results on the field, Diaco sees tremendous improvement compared to last year.
“It’s any combination of things. They’re way better. It’s not even close,” Diaco said. “Bryant is doing a fantastic job. He cares so much. (The offense is) improving. ... The ball security is improved. The protection overall is better than it was 12 months ago.”
One bright spot in the offense has been sophomore running back Arkeel Newsome. After starting the season as the No. 2 running back behind Ron Johnson, Newsome has worked to earn a share of the No. 1 position by becoming a versatile piece in the UConn offense.
Newsome leads all running backs with 221 rushing yards and is third on the team in receiving with 167 yards. In total, he has three touchdowns, largely due to his ability to avoid tackles due to his speed and quickness.
Newsome and the rest of the UConn offense will have their hands full against the Knight’s defense, which is fifth in the American in total defense, allowing 389.4 yards per game. UCF is also stingy against the run, allowing 140.2 yards per game which could mean more of the same for UConn’s lackluster run game that ranks second-to-last in the American, averaging just 99 yards per game.
“They have talented players,” Diaco said of the UCF defense. “They play hard. They do what they do. They make it tough sledding in terms of running the football."
UConn and UCF will battle for The Conflict trophy this Saturday at 3:45 p.m. on ESPNEWS.