The UConn football team comes off of its bye week with one of their biggest games in five years as they welcome No. 13 Houston at home Saturday. A win for the Huskies (5-5, 3-3 the American) would make them bowl eligible for the first time since the 2010-11 season, when they made their first and only BCS bowl appearance against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s on everyone’s mind, so to not address it a bit you’re avoiding the elephant in the room,” Diaco said on becoming bowl eligible. “We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about it. You mention a few things and you don’t need to pile on."
Since it is the final home game of the season, the Huskies will honor the 16 seniors within the program, including captains Andrew Adams, Julian Campenni and Marquise Vann.
“They’re resilient, perseverance, the combination of those two,” Diaco said of the senior class. “There’s a bunch of seniors that have poured so much into their experience here to work to change the circumstances and just be ultra-coachable.”
The Huskies took full advantage of last week’s bye week in order to get ready for Houston. On top of having extra time to game plan, players also used the week to recover mentally and physically from the rigors of the season.
“That bye week came right at the right time. So we took that. We took our time. The players had a chance to recharge their batteries, mind, body and soul,” Diaco said. “And then I think everybody just had a chance to mentally rest a little bit and come back together with an energy and an excitement.”
Diaco and the Huskies have a tall task to become bowl eligible this week in the Cougars (10-0, 6-0 the American), who are the highest-ranked team to visit Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field since then No. 11 South Florida visited in 2007.
The Cougars are led by first-year head coach Tom Herman, who became just the fifth coach in NCAA history to win his first 10 games with a victory last weekend. Herman spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, where he helped lead the Buckeyes to the 2015 College Football Championship. He was also named the winner of the Broyles Award last season, which is given to the top assistant coach in the country.
He has found tremendous success in his first season at Houston, as the offense ranks eighth in the country in scoring offense, averaging 43.5 points per game. The Cougars also lead the country in turnover margin and forced turnovers with a defense that allows 379.8 total yards per game.
“He’s done a fantastic job. They have a good team, they’ve always had very talented players, they have a recent history of success that he’s taken to a whole new level and a whole new stratosphere,” Diaco said of Herman’s first season at Houston.
Herman and Houston enters their matchup with the Huskies a week removed from orchestrating a 20-point comeback against Memphis to remain undefeated. After quarterback Greg Ward went down with a lower leg injury, backup quarterback Kyle Potsma threw for 236 yards and added a rushing touchdown in the victory over the Tigers for Houston’s first comeback win of the season.
“They believe, you can see great belief, you can see great confidence that created this awesome persistence towards their goal,” Diaco said of the Cougar’s win over Memphis. “It was a gutsy, gritty performance, but the one thing to me that I think you can see and feel when you watch is that they believe that they’re real good, and they are.”
Despite the injury, Ward will almost certainly be under center for the Cougars as they look to go 11-0 for the first time since 2011. The junior quarterback has been one of the most dynamic players in college football this season and an important centerpiece of the Houston offense.
Ward is the only player in the country averaging over 200 passing yards (217.6) and 80 rushing yards per game (81), and is one of two players with double-digit passing and rushing touchdowns with 13 and 16 respectively.