UConn football is still looking for their first win of the year over an FBS opponent, and hosting region rival UMass this Saturday for Homecoming (noon on ESPNU) just might present their best chance to get over the hump, especially coming off of their emotional upset attempt against USF last week.
But for head coach Randy Edsall, this game isn’t about how well or poorly their opponent is doing this year, but how well the Huskies can carry over the energy, emotion and execution they displayed against the Bulls.
“I’m concerned with us more than I am with [UMass],” Edsall said. “We know what UMass can do and their outstanding players, but we have to take care of ourselves first and foremost. If we don’t take care of ourselves we won’t even have an opportunity.”
UMass has had a tumultuous season so far, both on and off the field. The Minutemen started out the season with a win over FCS Duquesne, dropped three games straight to Boston College, Georgia Southern and FIU (giving up a combined 152 points in that stretch), then eked out a 49-31 win over Charlotte.
In their next game against Ohio, UMass lost 58-42, and head coach Mark Whipple was unhappy with the referees after the game, saying that “[we] had a chance there with 16 down and they rape us.”
Whipple later apologized for those remarks, which earned him a one-week suspension without pay from the university.
As far as on-the-field issues, the Minutemen have experienced troubles similar to UConn’s own, albeit more toned-down versions.
UMass’ offense has been good enough for them to win a couple games, but their defense has been an entirely different story. The Minutemen rank bottom five in the nation in both opponent points per play and opponent yards per play, and have given up over 50 points in half their games so far this season. Sound familiar?
Both Kevin Mensah and David Pindell put up fantastic rushing performances against USF, and a ton of credit for that goes to the offensive line, Edsall said, who will try to build off of their physical performance last Saturday against a porous Minutemen defensive line this week.
“I thought [USF] was our best game from an offensive line standpoint,” Edsall said. “We had guys working double teams and getting to the next level, and really executing things that needed to get done, so that was a step in the right direction, now we just have to continue it.”
One thing that the UConn offense will have to keep an eye out for is UMass defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham’s use of constant shifts on that side of the ball to confuse the other team, Edsall said.
“This week they’re gonna be tested because their [defense is] going to be moving all the time, so we’re gonna have to be very good with our fundamentals and our techniques,” Edsall said.
UMass’ offense has been serviceable so far in 2018 with veteran quarterback Andrew Ford leading the charge, completing 65 percent of his passes on the year for an average of 11.9 yards per completion. Question marks surround the unit heading into Saturday, however, as Ford suffered a leg injury in his last game against Charlotte, likely keeping him out this week.
Ford has split snaps at times this season with Ross Comis, who isn’t nearly as efficient of a passer, but is clearly dangerous running the ball, averaging almost eight yards per carry on the year.
If Comis were to make the start against the Huskies, he’ll be looking the way of wide receiver Andy Isabella quite often. The Minutemen’s leading pass-catcher has grabbed eight touchdowns on the year, catching 70 percent of all targets for 1013 yards so far.
“Isabella is a very good wide receiver, somebody who can wreck the game, so you gotta be aware of where he’s at,” Edsall said.
Locking down UMass’ best player will fall on the shoulders of an improving O’neil Robinson and the rest of the Huskies’ young defensive back corps.
Robinson will look to continue his recent successful streak started last Saturday against USF, where he led the team with nine tackles (two of them for loss), both high water marks of his young career.
“If he goes outside and there’s ten mile-an-hour winds, he might be blowing all the way to Hartford,” Edsall laughed. “He’s gotta get bigger and stronger, but one thing about [him] is he’s real football savvy. He’s got a pretty good knack of knowing the game.”
The Minutemen’s ground game has been mostly by platoon this year—a not-very-efficient one, at that—with resident bruiser Marquis Young leading the way, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and punching the ball in four times so far this year.
This will mark the first time UConn has played against their Massachusetts counterpart since 1999, when both teams were still part of the Yankee Conference. Curiously, both Whipple and Edsall were both in their first stint as head coaches in their current respective programs.
Both head coaches are leading a rebuilding effort in their second runs with their respective schools, and this game will be yet another opportunity for Edsall to see what he’s got heading into the future.
“It seems like it’s getting better each week. We have to continue to do that and continue to play with confidence, and if we do that, you give yourself the opportunity,” Edsall said.