The UConn football team will look to stop a two-game losing streak Saturday when they host American Athletic Conference rival Cincinnati at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The game will be UConn’s first home conference game of the 2016 season.
The Huskies were handed a 42-14 defeat by No. 6 Houston last Thursday as they went to Texas for a primetime showdown. UConn hung with the Cougars through the first quarter, which ended in a scoreless tie, but star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and the rest of the Houston offense then scored four consecutive touchdowns to build up a commanding halftime lead that they would not relinquish.
In a press conference held Tuesday, UConn head coach Bob Diaco indicated that the Huskies expected more than that lopsided result.
“[Houston is] a great team, but that’s also not a representation of where we’re at,” Diaco said.
Diaco did go on to emphasize the challenge of taking down such a hot Houston team on the road.
“You’re given a plot of land to till,” Diaco said. “You’re excited to till it. You’re excited to work it. You’re excited to grow your crop. Some plots of land are harder to till than others.”
UConn could not till the land Thursday, as they dropped their third game in fourth weeks, but they now will enter Saturday’s clash with three extra days of rest under their belt. The Huskies have had a difficult stretch of games, in which they’ve faced tough challenges and seen multiple outcomes come down to the wire.
“It was good to get some body rest, for sure,” Diaco said, talking about the importance of three extra days of rest after playing on a Thursday. “After some very physical weeks. Like I mentioned, and I don’t mean it in a defeatist way. I don’t, I hope it didn’t come out that way before when I was talking about our plot of land to till. But it’s been a lot to chew on it. It’s been a significant plate of food to eat, so it’s good that they’ve had some rest,” Diaco said.
Diaco did have many positive things to say about his players Tuesday, as he praised the special teams, the linebacker group and safety Obi Melifonwu in particular. Despite the blowout loss, the Huskies made a few plays on Thursday night, and now they will get a chance to refuel and bounce back on their home field this weekend.
Their opponent, the Cincinnati Bearcats, will also be looking for their first conference win of the season, and was also routed last week in a 45-20 loss to USF. The Bearcats are scoring points relatively easily, despite a rotating cast of quarterbacks, but their defense has not been great, allowing 420 yards and 26 points per game.
Diaco had high praise for the Cincinnati offense.
“I think the guts of what we’ve seen so far – the offensive line, tight end and running back formation – will be the most formidable that we’ve seen in the first six weeks,” Diaco said of the Bearcats’ offensive personnel.
An important factor in Saturday’s game will be the Bearcats’ quarterback choice. Starter Hayden Moore is doubtful with an injury, having missed the last two games, so Cincinnati will have to choose between backups Ross Trail and Gunner Kiel. Both Trail and Kiel have been poor in limited action this season, so the Huskies may have the chance to force turnovers, which they have desperately needed at times in 2016.
On the offensive side of the ball, UConn will likely look to wide receiver Noel Thomas early and often as they continue to try to figure out their issues in the running game. Thomas grabbed six passes for 135 yards and a touchdown last Thursday, continuing a monstrous senior season in which he is averaging 104.6 yards per game. Thomas has 46 catches through five games, and the next highest total on the team belongs to receiver Hergy Mayala, who has 15.
But Diaco always preaches the importance of the running game, and that continues to be a work-in-progress. Thomas was actually the Huskies’ leading rusher in the loss to Houston with 22 yards, as running backs Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson combined for 24 rushing yards on just 12 attempts. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs ran 10 times for just 12 yards and a short score.
Diaco preached the importance of giving the shifty Newsome more chances to shine.
“I really don’t have an interest in watching Bryant run, and Arkeel not,” Diaco said. “So for Arkeel to have six touches, that can’t happen. Can’t happen. I don’t feel like I’m comprising state secrets. I don’t know what play he’s going to really be electric, but if it’s on [play] 13, we’ve got to give him 12 [touches] to see what 13 looks like. He’s just that kind of player, and we need to get him the ball. We need to get him the ball. We’re underachieving, period, by not getting the ball to Arkeel Newsome more than we do. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Newsome should have opportunities to break loose against the Bearcats, who allowed 226 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground to USF last week.
UConn and Cincinnati will kick off Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.