The UConn football team will finally march into battle and begin the 2016 edition of the Civil Conflict rivalry Saturday, as they take on American Athletic Conference opponent UCF in its annual Homecoming game at Rentschler Field. The Homecoming game will represent the fourth meeting between the two teams in the rivalry, which UConn leads 2-1 with back-to-back wins in 2014 and 2015.
Head coach Bob Diaco downplayed the importance of the rivalry at his weekly press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re excited to play,” Diaco said when asked about the Conflict. “I’ve had enough of the conversation externally, so I’m not going to get into all that business.”
The Huskies (3-4, 1-2 The American) were buried late by an explosive USF offense last weekend as they fell 42-27 to the Bulls in Tampa. UConn took a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter as running back Arkeel Newsome scored a quick pair of touchdowns, but the Bulls lurched to life with four touchdowns of their own the rest of the way to secure a conference win.
Despite the loss, it was a commendable effort from UConn, who had to go on the road and take on yet another high-octane set of playmakers. Diaco found the positives.
“On further review, and really taking a deep look at things, there’s so much encouraging stuff,” Diaco said, praising improvements in smaller, less noticeable aspects by the team. “They’re very positive in the right way.”
A loss to USF wasn’t the result the Huskies wanted, but they competed, and now they are past the most challenging part of their schedule. It’s fair to expect things to get easier from here on out, although none of these remaining opponents will be a walk in the park.
“Three of our four losses were to the No. 11, No. 25, and No. 27 teams in the country, and they were all on the road,” Diaco said, referencing American rivals Houston, Navy and USF, respectively. Only one other team in America’s done that. Only one other team has played, through the first half of the season, that level of challenge.”
The UCF Knights are 3-3 this season, with a 1-1 record in conference after losing 26-25 at home to Temple last weekend. The Knights are led by rookie head coach Scott Frost, who is helping UCF rebound from a disastrous 2015 season, in which they finished 0-12.
The Knights’ starting quarterback is normally senior Justin Holman, who has started for the team since 2014, but his hamstring injury earlier this year has given way to freshman McKenzie Milton to take over under center. Milton struggled against Temple, but helped lead the offense to 53 points against FIU and 47 points against East Carolina.
The leading running back for UCF is Dontravious Wilson, who has rushed for 278 yards and seven touchdowns through six games. Tre’Quan Smith is the team’s leading wide receiver, averaging 54 yards per game.
Diaco had high praise for Frost’s defense, which is allowing 352.8 yards and 25 points per game. The Knights have racked up 23 sacks so far and hold opponents to a 29 percent conversion rate on third downs.
“I love watching their defense,” Diaco said. “It definitely jumps off the screen for 2016. This is a well-coached defense with playmakers.”
UCF presents another challenge for Diaco’s team, which has moved past the halfway point of their 2016 season and into the home stretch. The Huskies are three wins away from a bowl bid, but they’ve played well enough to indicate they can secure those wins. The Huskies will take on East Carolina, Temple, Boston College and Tulane after they battle the Knights this weekend.
“You can look at the record right now, and hang your hat on that, which is fine, but it’s definitely not an indication of where we are as a program, and how far we’ve come. The players do the right things, and their habits are strong habits. They’re winning habits. We play the game the right way. We play the game with class and integrity, and character and toughness, and great effort and strain, and by the rules,” Diaco said.
UConn and UCF will kick off the Conflict at 12 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The game will be broadcast on ESPNEWS.