The UConn football team will take on its toughest challenge of the 2016 season Thursday when they travel to face No. 6 Houston in Texas for a primetime showdown. The Cougars, who finished 13-1 last season with their only loss coming to the Huskies, are undefeated and steamrolling every opponent in their path.
UConn was handed another disappointing defeat last weekend as they fell 31-24 at home to hated rival Syracuse. Orange wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo racked up a school record 270 receiving yards as the Huskies were again torched defensively through the air.
“Nobody was down and out and kind of feeling defeated. It was more of an angry, kind of resolute [group],” Diaco said of the team’s attitude following last Saturday’s loss.
The Syracuse loss was another defeat that UConn could have flipped the script on. The Huskies’ offense, trailing by a touchdown, had a 1st-and-goal situation midway through the fourth quarter, before running four unsuccessful run plays to turn the ball over on downs. The Orange then escaped their own goal line with a 59-yard completion to Etta-Tawo on third down, and sealed the game with a backbreaking scoring drive.
“The game on Saturday was tough, because we could see how close these games are, we could see how good we’ve become, and there’s still been a few moments that have created losing. That prevent winning. A few plays here and there, and it’s literally down to that,” Diaco said.
Diaco did display his usual optimism, which is deserved for an underperforming team just a few plays away from a 4-0 record.
“It’s not an excited attitude either about where we’re at, that’s not it, and I don’t want to be misinterpreted, but there’s a lot of encouraging things. The team has gotten better every week in all three phases,” Diaco said.
On a short week, the Huskies will now turn their attention to Houston, an American Athletic Conference opponent that has been one of the big storylines in college football so far this season. The Cougars opened their season with an impressive 33-23 victory over Oklahoma, and have followed that with three more dominant wins, including a rout of Cincinnati. They have outscored opponents 146-19 over the last three games.
Of course, UConn was the last team to beat Houston, in a 20-17 shocker last November at Rentschler Field. But that was a wonky game that didn’t feature much action for star Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who didn’t receive the start because of an ankle injury.
Ward Jr. is back to full strength this season and he has been one of the best players in the country, earning his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. He is averaging 234 passing yards per game, along with five touchdowns. He is also a credible runner, with 113 yards and three touchdowns on the ground so far in 2016.
Diaco had high praise for the dynamic opposing quarterback.
“[Ward Jr.] really quarterbacks the team,” Diaco said. “It’s not like if he’s on the move scrambling, he’s just scrambling to run. He scrambles and delivers the ball down the field. He’s an accurate passer. He puts their offense into good plays. He’s got a high football intelligence for coverage, and where to go with the football. He’s really quarterbacking the team. To put him in a box, to just speak to his athleticism and quickness, is not fair to him.”
On the other side of the ball, the Huskies will be led by a quarterback who also missed a majority of that game last November. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs left the game with a concussion on his second drive against the Cougars, after leading a touchdown drive his first time out, which handed the keys to backup Tim Boyle for the rest of the day.
Shirreffs will be in charge again Thursday to lead the offense against a Houston defense that is allowing just 10.5 points per game. A huge factor for UConn’s chances will be the play of wide receiver Noel Thomas, who snagged a career-high 14 receptions against Syracuse to help land a spot on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award on Tuesday. The Biletnikoff Award is given annually to the most outstanding receiver in college football.
UConn will try to pull off an improbable win when they meet Houston on Thursday night at 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.