It is a weekend that will go to the dogs in East Hartford. After three grueling matches against Power Five schools either in or receiving votes for the AP Top 25 poll, the UConn football team returns home to complete a home-and-home series with the Fresno State University Bulldogs.
The Huskies enter this battle having been battered on the field (148 points allowed over their last three games) and from within. As of publication, UConn’s initial starting quarterback, top two running backs and top three wide receivers are all injured. Most of them have unfortunately suffered season-ending injuries, but this adversity has not stopped head coach Jim Mora from invoking effort into his players.
Zion Turner is making his fifth career start and hoping for better results than his last three. Turner has not thrown for over 100 yards in a game since beating Central Connecticut State University earlier this month on 45 combined passing attempts. Having already played against a team in the Mountain West conference in the Utah State University Aggies and faced with a thinning running backs corps, expect Turner to end his passing yards drought.
With Nathan Carter (presumably) and Brian Brewton (definitely) out for the season, the running game has become thin. Although the Huskies have suggested using defensive lineman Jelani Stafford as a running back, there are at least two healthy speedsters in Devontae Houston and Victor Rosa. Houston has 110 yards on 17 carries for a touchdown while Rosa has 81 yards on 26 carries for two touchdowns. Houston may be listed as the top running back on the depth chart, but Rosa could get most of the carries after a strong fourth quarter drive against the North Carolina State University Wolfpack. Behind both of them is freshman Cam Edwards, but whether he sees the field or not will likely depend on the result of the game.
The defense wants to prevent their opponent from scoring after three rough weeks. They have the pieces to contain offenses as four players have over 30 total tackles. Although he put up nine tackles last week, Jackson Mitchell is now fourth in the country with 58 tackles while recording three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. In tackles, he ranks behind Jason Henderson (Old Dominion University), Kyle Soelle (Arizona State University) and Cedric Gray (University of North Carolina). Durante Jones (38), Ian Swenson (37) and Brandon Bouyer-Randle (33) are the remaining three tacklers who can stop offenses in their tracks. Bouyer-Randle has made a major impact in the secondary with both of the team’s interceptions this season.
Even if opponents contain these powerful defensive backs and linebackers, they still have to deal with Eric Watts, who has a team-leading 4.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Watts has become the next big thing on the defensive line after Travis Jones went to the National Football League and is making the most of his time up front. The defense has their work cut out for them against a team 28 points a game.
Fresno State (1-2) is a little weaker than last season when they were ranked for three weeks. The Bulldogs last played two weeks ago, losing to the then No. 7 University of Southern California Trojans 45-17 at the Coliseum. The last time the two canine teams met, Fresno State shut out UConn in the Golden State 45-0 to kick off the 2021 campaign. While the trip to Fresno was the farthest west the Huskies have ever traveled, this trip to East Hartford will be the farthest east the Bulldogs have ever been.
With Jake Haener indefinitely out of action, the Bulldogs turn to sophomore Logan Fife at quarterback. Fife has not had many opportunities to call plays because of Haener, but he flashes potential. Against USC, Fife went 11-12 for 140 yards, improving on his season-highs from his freshman campaign. Fife is bound to have a career game on Saturday unless the Husky defense can shut him down.
Fresno State also has a speedy running back in Jordan Mims, who has 309 rushing yards for four touchdowns while Malik Sherrod has a rushing touchdown and 124 yards as the backup. Mims, who averages 103 yards a game, will get most of the carries while Sherrod can come in on a trick play to gain some yards.
In terms of receivers, the Bulldogs have two weapons in Nikko Remigio and Erik Brooks. Remigio can be used as a dual threat option given his 206 receiving yards and 27 rushing yards while Brooks can handle the deep ball and run into the endzone as he has half of the team’s four receiving touchdowns. Behind them are Jalen Moreno-Cropper and Josh Kelly, both of whom have over 130 receiving yards.
On defense, the Bulldogs have two players with 22 tackles (three combined for a loss) in linebacker Levelle Bailey and defensive back Evan Williams. What makes them stand out from the rest is their versatility that shuts down a play on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs do not have an interception yet, but they made up for it with seven sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. What this means is that the defensive line brings the pressure up front and aims to tackle the quarterback every time they are on the field.
The key in this game is going to be converting on third down. UConn is 28-72 while the Bulldogs are 14-34, both of which hover around a 40% conversion rate. The Huskies’ defense has notoriously kept opposing drives alive by allowing a third down conversion while Fresno State complements their offense by stopping the opponent once every three tries. Whoever can convert more third downs will win the game.
Kickoff in this year’s cancer awareness game/whiteout is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 1, at 3:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.