When UConn heads to Syracuse this weekend, it will likely be head coach Randy Edsall’s final trip as a head coach to the place where he made his bones as a football player, then as a graduate assistant for the Orange from 1976 to 1990.
“I’ve got nothing but great memories of Syracuse. Frank Malone, my college coach gave me the opportunity to go there first and foremost on a scholarship,” Edsall said. “Lucky for me, I met the love of my life there Eileen, and lucky for me Frank gave me the opportunity to get into this profession.”
Edsall will make his last entrance into the Carrier Dome for the foreseeable future this Saturday at 4 p.m. with a very young UConn team whose struggles on defense have been well documented in recent weeks, despite getting their first win of the season last Saturday against Rhode Island
They’re the first team since the turn of the century to give up 2,000 yards of total offense in the first three weeks of the season, and the built-in explanation has been youth- the Huskies have started more freshmen on defense than any other Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) program this year.
“I don’t care who you are, if you’re starting that many young guys as we are, you’re not gonna have the stats,” Edsall said in a press conference Tuesday. “If we can get them to play hard and keep giving a great effort each and every day in practice and the meeting rooms, we’ll get it to pay off for us.”
If this whole process does end up paying off for the Huskies, there’s a good chance we won’t see it happen this Saturday, when they face a Syracuse team coming off one of head coach Dino Babers’ biggest wins of his career.
Syracuse throttled Florida State 30-7 on Saturday, the first time they had come out on top over the Noles since 1966, starting out 3-0 on the season.
Syracuse does have an offense that ranks in the top third in the nation, averaging 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, while completing 18 of 31 pass attempts through the air at 7.1 yards per attempt.
That’s not exactly the pinnacle of efficiency, but those numbers should figure to rise when they face a UConn defense giving up the most yards per play in the FBS since 2008.
To help solve this admittedly large problem, Edsall has tinkered with the defensive lineup a bit, most notably moving linebackers – and good friends – Eli Thomas and Darrian Beavers to defensive end in some third down situations in order to get more athleticism on the field.
“Darrian and I are good buddies and we bounce ideas off each other, different ideas for moves. Even though he’s a younger guy, he helps me out if I need help with moves, if I have an idea I’ll come to him,” Thomas said.
Syracuse employs a two-quarterback offense with two very stylistically-different play callers: Eric Dungey, the hero of last year’s late-season win over playoff participant Clemson, isn’t the most efficient thrower, but runs the ball with reckless abandon, averaging nearly nine yards per carry on the ground. On the other side is Tommy DeVito, more of a pocket passer who completed 11 of 16 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown on Saturday.
Syracuse’s offense is based more on a strong run game, however. They rush the ball 55 percent of the time, and gain nearly five yards per carry on the ground. Running back Moe Neal carries the ball for them the most, with 56 attempts on the year for 230 yards.
The Orange rely heavily on their No. 1 receiver, senior Jamal Custis. He’s been targeted 22 times so far this year, racking up 265 yards (over three times as much as the next receiver) for three touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, UConn ace quarterback David Pindell will have a tougher time moving the ball down the field against a salty Syracuse defense than last week against Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) competition.
Syracuse is middle of the pack in defense, allowing 6.7 yards per play and ranking 70 in the country in points allowed per play, but put together a dominant performance last Saturday against Florida State.
The Orange racked up four sacks and seven tackles for loss against the Noles, but haven’t faced a mobile quarterback quite like Pindell so far this year, who has averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 11.1 yards per pass on a 65 percent completion rate so far this year.
You can definitely look for the Huskies to continue to try and push the ball down the field, targeting different pass-catchers on Saturday, Edsall said.
This would continue the trend set by Pindell last week, where he spread the ball out to nine different receivers, three of whom had over 40 yards receiving and a touchdown on the day. Receivers Hergy Mayala and Kyle Buss, running back Zavier Scott and tight ends Aaron McLean and Tyler Davis all have been targeted ten times or more so far this year.
“It’s just a philosophy that [offensive coordinator] John [Dunn] has, and when you spread the ball around as much as we have, what did we throw it to, nine different receivers on Saturday, that helps you and keeps everyone involved,” Edsall said.
Running back Kevin Mensah will also look to continue his solid start to the season, as he’s gaining 226 yards on the ground in the last two games.
“I think he’s starting to get a little bit more comfortable with reading his blocks and making his cuts and seeing the defense ahead of time and maybe anticipating some things,” Edsall said of his running back.
To prepare for the raucous environment in the Carrier Dome, the Huskies practiced all week indoors in the Shenkman Training Center, with deafening crowd noise pumped in through large speakers.
“I don’t think it will be that loud, I mean that was pretty loud [today], but we definitely know what to expect. It’ll definitely be pretty loud, that’s a really nice stadium they got up there,” Mensah said.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.