After holding on for a close win in their season opener against Maine, the UConn football team heads to Annapolis, Maryland for their American Athletic Conference opener against Navy.
The Midshipmen are fresh off a resounding 52-16 victory over FCS opponent Fordham at home last week. Despite the win, Navy lost starting quarterback Tago Smith for the season with a torn ACL. Smith was expected to try and fill the shoes of Keenan Reynolds, the NCAA’s all-time leader in career touchdowns. With Smith out, senior Will Worth will likely be orchestrating the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.
“From a preparation standpoint, there’s no change,” Diaco said of Worth at quarterback instead of Smith. “We fully expect them to run their offense the way they run it.”
Reynolds isn’t only the impact player the Midshipmen have lost, as bruising fullback Chris Swain is also gone due to graduation after posting 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Chris High, Swain’s replacement, rattled off 176 rushing yards in the win against the Rams.
“It's just the next Navy fullback. They're all dynamic players. All pose an incredible problem. There's no real way to simulate it,” Diaco said. “Even if you have a young player who might be fast [on scout team] they still don't hit the spot with the same energy and gusto that those guys hit it.”
The Huskies struggled against the offense in their 28-18 loss to Navy last season, with the Midshipmen racking up 303 rushing yards in the first-ever conference matchup between the two programs. UConn head coach Bob Diaco has prior experience defending the Navy offense due to his time as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, and despite the familiarity, knows stopping an offense like this is no easy task.
“From a defensive perspective, all three levels, all three layers need to be defended. You can’t pick and choose which one, you can’t load up one because it’s going to be more attacked,” Diaco said.
UConn’s defense will have a much harder task stopping Navy’s dynamic rushing game than in their season opener, where they held Maine to 40 yards on the ground. The Midshipmen racked up 427 rushing yards in their win over Fordham and finished the 2015 season tied for second in the nation with 326.7 rushing yards per game.
While the ground game is integral part of the Navy offense, the passing game is used sparingly but successfully. Navy averaged 10.5 yards per passing attempt last season and threw for 123 yards on just four attempts in their win over Fordham. After surrendering 269 yards in the air to Maine’s Dan Collins, UConn will need to improve the pass defense to limit the rare but effective Navy passing plays.
“We left chunks on defense on the field,” Diaco said of the Huskies’ defensive performance against Maine. “The philosophy of being great against the run and eliminating explosive play pass doesn’t change, but systematically we change [for Navy].”
Huskies quarterback Bryant Shirreffs looks to build off of a solid performance against Maine with a quality showing against the Midshipmen. Shirreffs racked up 257 yards of total offense, including 162 passing yards. Shirreffs received the New England Football Writer’s Association Gold Helmet award for his performance against the Black Bears, given to the top player from a New England school each week in the FBS/FCS and in Division II/III. The Gold Helmet was the second of Shirreffs’ career, with his first coming after leading UConn to a win over Villanova in the 2015 season opener.
“He extended plays, he created some opportunities, he extended drives with his legs,” Diaco said of Shirreffs’ performance against Maine. “I thought he did pretty good.”
UConn and Navy will kick off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.