If you thought UConn’s game last week against SMU was dumb fun, then buckle up sucker. If the UConn football team execute on offense the same way they did last week in their game against East Carolina this Saturday at 7 p.m., it will likely be an even wilder game than the last.
Both teams are still looking for their first conference wins, and recent history shows that these two teams will combine for a lot of points. Their matchup last year resulted in 79 points and nearly a thousand yards of total offense in a 41-38 East Carolina win.
East Carolina’s (2-7, 0-6 The American) offense has been inefficient this year as they’ve struggled to cope with the loss of quarterback Gardner Minshew in the offseason. They rank 104th in the country in yards per play, so to make up for this, head coach Scottie Montgomery has turned into quite the volume shooter.
Quarterback Colton Ahlers might not have had much success in the three games he’s started since Reid Herring went out with an injury, but you have to commend him for sheer effort: he’s thrown 182 passes in those three weeks, including a mind-blowing 21 for 67 statline against Tulane last week.
“Ahlers is a big, strong kid,” head coach Randy Edsall said, and he will have to muster all of that power on Saturday against UConn’s 130th-ranked pass defense.
The important asset Ahlers brings to the table is his rushing ability. You wouldn’t expect a 6-foot-3, 240-pound freshman to take off that often, but he’s been by far the most effective rusher on the team. He’s ran the ball 86 times this year for five touchdowns on 6 yards per carry.
Ahlers has a sizable target to help him adjust to life at the college level as well. Despite spotty quarterback play, receiver Trevon Brown has caught 64 passes for 995 yards on the season, including eight touchdowns.
SMU’s star receiver James Proche showed out against UConn’s secondary last week, so whatever progress they’ve made over the year needs to improve drastically if they want to hold Brown in check.
“I would say we’ve seen some improvement with fundamentals in fundamentals and techniques. If you don’t see improvement in that, you don’t have a chance. I think they’ve gotten better,” Edsall said in regards to UConn’s young defensive backs.
East Carolina’s pass defense has been poor at best — opponents complete 62 percent of their passes against them — but their run defense has been solid, an outlier in Greenville over recent years.
This development is mostly due to one of the best front seven players in the nation playing for the Pirates, defensive end Nate Harvey. He leads the country with 20 tackles for loss on the year, and has stopped rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage 24 times.
One player doesn’t usually change the entire complexion of the defense, but since Harvey has joined East Carolina, the Pirates have gone from to 117th in rushing S&P+ in 2017, before he played regularly, to 28th in that category, now that he’s an every-day starter.
“Harvey is probably the best defensive lineman we’ll see all year,” Edsall said. “We gotta decide what to do with him.”
If UConn’s offensive line wants to maintain the ground game success they’ve had in recent weeks, they will have to find a way to control the game-breaking lineman. The Huskies rushed for 364 yards and 7.5 yards per carry against SMU, Pindell looked back in great form rushing and passing, and a lot of that was due to improved cohesion among the offensive line.
“I think their communication has been really good, and that starts with Ryan Crozier,” Edsall said. “I think [Ryan] Van Demark struggled a little early in the year and he’s started to pick it up these last few games too.”
UConn’s offense was dealt a huge blow this week, as running back Zavier Scott fell to an MCL and PCL injury that will keep him out until August. Not only was Zavier Scott the Huskies’ leading pass catcher this season, he also got the second most carries at running back.
UConn has a huge hole to fill in their backfield, so expect to see true freshman Donte Black and hometown sophomore Dominico Moncion fill in when Kevin Mensah needs a rest. Black has taken just one snap in his collegiate career, and Moncion has yet to see the field.
East Carolina represents UConn’s last real chance to get a win over an FBS opponent (American East-contender Temple comes to town for their last game of the season), and the game will be entertaining at the very least, even if most of the 2018 campaign has not been.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us again, but I liked the approach our kids had today, and we just have to keep harping on some of these little things to get better,” Edsall said.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.