Football: Stingy defense leads Huskies to rare win over Cincinnati

UConn cornerback John Green Jr. tackles Cincinnati's Devin Gray in the Huskies' 20-9 win over Cincinnati at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field on Oct. 8, 2016. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

UConn cornerback John Green Jr. tackles Cincinnati's Devin Gray in the Huskies' 20-9 win over Cincinnati at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field on Oct. 8, 2016. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

EAST HARTFORD— UConn football head coach Bob Diaco is always preaching the importance of defense. It’s in his football DNA. Through two-and-a-half years at UConn, defense has typically been the strength of his teams.

That hasn’t always been the case this season, but it certainly was Saturday as the Huskies defeated Cincinnati 20-9 to claim their first American Athletic Conference win of 2016. UConn held the Bearcats to just two rushing yards, the seventh-lowest total allowed in program history, and kept quarterback Hayden Moore’s offense out of the end zone completely.

“The guys were ready to be physical with their hands, and tackle well,” Diaco said of his team’s effort against the run. “They could get down into those runs.”

The Huskies’ offense had their typical slow start, placing the defense in some compromising field position, but it was another bend-don’t-break performance from the unit. They forced field goal attempts twice inside their own 5-yard line, and forced another after pushing the Bearcats back 10 yards on a drive that started on the UConn 16-yard line. That added up to nine points for Cincinnati when they could have had 21, and that was it for scoring from the visitors.

“That’s just what the defense does,” UConn safety Obi Melifonwu said after the game. “We hold teams, and we feel like anywhere on the field we can stop anybody.”

Diaco emphasized his defense’s resilience when backed up near their own end zone.

“The mindset is that if there’s a place to stand, then you have an opportunity to get off the field, and that’s how the guys think. They don’t get discouraged as it gets closer [to the end zone], it’s an energizer,” Diaco said.

As strong as the UConn front seven played against the Bearcats running backs, the performance of the secondary was equally important to the unit’s success. The Huskies’ defensive backs had their struggles, especially on bubble screens to wide receivers, but altogether they delivered a strong performance.

Moore completed just 29 of his 56 passes, as UConn broke up eight passes and Melifonwu intercepted another. Cornerback Jhavon Williams and John Green were two of the standout performers, as they combined for 16 total tackles and five pass breakups.

The secondary’s effort came after a shift in personnel that moved cornerback Jamar Summers to safety alongside Melifonwu and cornerback John Green into the starting lineup. For Summers, who was named to the 2015 American Athletic Conference first team as a cornerback, it was a surprising shift, but Diaco praised his versatility.

“So selfless,” Diaco said. “The conversation [about the position change] was literally five seconds. A highly football-intelligent guy.”

Melifonwu credited the success of the personnel changes to the secondary’s experience and comfort playing with each other.

“It’s easy for us to switch up the roles because everyone knows what they’re doing,” Melifonwu said. “It’s easy for us to understand the defense and understand where the pieces fit, so it wasn’t really a step down, it was actually a step up for us.”


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.