Preview: Football looks to bounce back against Virginia

UConn football players celebrate in a game against Maine, Sept. 1st, 2016. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

The UConn football team will look to rebound from last weekend’s painful loss to conference rival Navy when they host Virginia at Rentschler Field on Saturday afternoon. The Huskies (1-1, 0-1 The American) and Cavaliers (0-2) will kick off at 1:30 p.m. in the first meeting between the two teams since 2008.

Head coach Bob Diaco talked at length about the controversial ending to the Navy game during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, but also emphasized that the team has moved on and is focused on the present task at hand. As discouraging as the ending was, the game left the Huskies with many positives, including the play of quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. The redshirt junior set a single-game school record by completing 23-of-26 passes for 239 yards, and led the offense down the field multiple times with his arm.

“He did a wonderful job. I’m really pleased with his growth from game one to game two,” Diaco said of Shirreffs’ performance.

Shirreffs received plenty of help from senior wide receiver Noel Thomas, who had one of the best performances of his career on Saturday. Thomas caught 11 balls for 116 yards and a touchdown, and seemed to be a focal point of the offensive attack.

“He’s prepared himself to have this level of production,” Diaco said of Thomas. “He got very serious about his work dating back to January, February.”

Where the Huskies will look to improve is their pass defense, which has been uncharacteristically flat to open the 2016 season. The secondary surrendered 269 yards and two touchdowns to Maine quarterback Dan Collins in the season opener, and even allowed the traditionally ground-heavy Navy option attack to beat them for 130 passing yards over the top.

With all that in mind, UConn turns its attention now to the winless Virginia Cavaliers, who have yet to play their first ACC conference game. Under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall, formerly the coach at BYU, the Cavaliers are looking to bounce back from a 44-26 loss to No. 22 Oregon last weekend. Virginia lost its opener at home to FCS opponent Richmond.

“I think Bronco Mendenhall is a great coach. I love how they play. They play with effort; they play with energy. He’s a defensive guy, so the defense is strong, and stout, and aggressive. They’re fundamentally sound, and that’s a very talented team,” Diaco said of Virginia.

The Cavaliers are led by new quarterback Kurt Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, and rely on their rushing attack to move the ball. Senior back Albert Reid is averaging 77 yards a game and 7.3 yards per attempt thus far in 2016. Virginia has struggled on defense so far, allowing a whopping 578 yards and 40.5 points per game through two contests.

With a power conference team coming to town, Diaco is looking to rally the team and pick up a potentially huge win in front of the home fans in East Hartford. Staying positive, he believes that the Navy loss will only help UConn grow in the long run.

“We’ve always been able to take the strain, and the fire and the pain, and adversity, and use it as a strengthening partner,” Diaco said. “I would think that everyone in our organization would be more mentally strong, and more excited for the work then they would have otherwise been without that moment. That’s how we work in our family, and I believe that to be the case.”

UConn and Virginia will kick off Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on SNY.


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu.