Football: Huskies take on East division leader USF

UConn junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (#4) scrambles to evade a tackle by UC's senior linebacker Antonio Kinard (#42). The Huskies defeated the Bearcats 20-9 on Saturday Oct. 8, 2016 at Rentschler Field at Pratt and Whitney Stadium. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

UConn junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (#4) scrambles to evade a tackle by UC's senior linebacker Antonio Kinard (#42). The Huskies defeated the Bearcats 20-9 on Saturday Oct. 8, 2016 at Rentschler Field at Pratt and Whitney Stadium. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Halfway to their goal of a second straight bowl bid, the UConn football team heads to Tampa, Florida to take on USF, the leaders of the East division of the American Athletic Conference.

The Bulls (5-1, 2-0 the American) have gotten off to an electric start this season, winning their first three games before suffering a 55-35 loss to then No. 13 Florida State. Since the loss to the Seminoles, USF defeated two American opponents (Cincinnati and East Carolina) by a total of 41 points.

“It will be a great challenge not only systemically but their players too,” Diaco said of the Bulls. “They have a great tailback, quarterback who drives the whole thing, and then on the perimeter they have some exceptional speed."

USF’s biggest strength is its offense, where the Bulls rank sixth in the country with 45.5 points per game. This dynamic offense is led by quarterback Quinton Flowers both in the air and on the ground. Flowers leads the Bulls with 1,322 passing yards and is the team’s leading rusher with 498 yards, good for a total of 15 touchdowns on the season.

“Quinton is more of a big back, I mean he’ll make you miss too. He’s incredibly talented,” Diaco said. “I think that Flowers is a more proficient runner than [Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr.]…I would say he has more tools to run than Ward does.”

Containing Flowers won’t be an easy task for the Huskies, but the UConn defense is coming off their strongest performance to date, holding Cincinnati to 317 yards of total offense, just two of which came from the Bearcats’ running game. While the Bearcats own one of the worst running games in college football, the Huskies will need a stout performance to stop Flowers and running backs Marlon Mack and D’Ernest Johnson. This trio does the majority of the legwork in a running scheme that averages 260.5 rushing yards per game, good for 12th in the country.

"I feel like the run defense has been great all year long,” Diaco said. “We've played a couple of the top rushing teams in America. So this will be a great, great challenge.”

Aside from the defense, the Huskies offensive line also put together a solid performance in the win over the Bearcats. With the return of guard Tommy Hopkins from injury, the line has been able to gel and help improve the run game and give quarterback Bryant Shirreffs more time in the pocket.

Right tackle Andreas Knappe has also improved tremendously, adding strong-side protection in the passing game and stepping up in the running game. The senior captain was named to the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week for his strong performance in the passing and running game against the Bearcats, earning a PFF rating of 83.7. As a result of the improvement of players like Knappe and the return of Hopkins, UConn racked up 188 yards on the ground, the most against an FBS opponent this season.

"They're getting better. I think one thing is that we have a cog back that hasn't been present for a long time. So the guards are now healthy where we can go three for two with Tommy [Hopkins] back at the guard position,” Diaco said.

UConn and USF will kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.