Football: Huskies kick off 2023 season with homefield challenge 

STORRS, Conn. – The UConn football team announced that kick-off for their in-state match-up with Sacred Heart University on Saturday, November 18 will be 12 noon. Photo by UConn Athletics.

After a long offseason that lasted all of 255 days, the stage is set for UConn football’s return. The field is painted, the fans are amped and all that’s left is the initial kickoff. Thursday, the first of Connecticut’s 12 scheduled matchups, comes against one of their stiffer opponents of the season, NC State. 

The Wolfpack were vote-getters in the preseason AP Poll and The Athletic’s comprehensive ranking of all 133 FBS teams ranked them as the No. 38 team in the land. For comparison, UConn came in at No. 86. 

Last year, NC State trounced the Huskies on their way to a 41-10 win. It was a trying effort for Connecticut, who completed just 10 passes for 39 yards and rushed for a combined 121 yards. If this outcome poses a concern for fans about this year’s contest, it’s important to keep in mind that former NC State QB Devin Leary, who torched UConn for 320 yards and four scores, is gone. He went portaling and landed in Kentucky, safely away from the Huskies. 

Instead, calling plays for the Wolfpack offense will be Brennan Armstrong, a graduate transfer from Virginia. Armstrong was a solid quarterback for a Cavalier squad that struggled during their 3-9 campaign. After their bye game against Richmond, the offense failed to eclipse 21 points more than once. Despite what his last name may indicate, the gunslinger didn’t stand out with the seven touchdowns he threw. However, the eye-catching number was his 12 picks, ranking him eighth-worst in the FBS. That’s not a place you want to be atop the country. Keep in mind that this followed a season that saw Armstrong lead the third most prolific offense in the FBS with 31 touchdowns. 

Armstrong will have some targets to throw to, as Keyon Lesane returns for his senior year. He was a solid tertiary option for the 8-5 Wolfpack last year, making 31 catches for 342 yards. Lesane found the end zone twice and hopes to take a step towards being the team’s top receiver. 

Jordan Houston was the lead back in a pass-first offense and rushed for just 544 season yards last year. He scored once, but it was through the air, and he has just six ground touchdowns to his name. He still returns as the starter and will hope for early success in East Hartford, Connecticut. 

Although the bones of the offense are a bit shaky, NC State’s defense is almost always stellar. Last year they ranked in the top 20 nationally in several key defensive categories, including points against and yards surrendered. Although this year’s team loses pieces from their excellent linebacker room, expect their replacements to step up. 

For UConn, last year was a complete surprise to most. They started off as expected, losing to Utah State, beating CCSU and getting whomped in three straight against Syracuse, Michigan and NC State. Afterwards, though, they did the unexpected, beating Fresno State at home. Yes, the Bulldogs were missing QB1 Jake Haener, but UConn was on their second or third stringers for most offensive positions too. Including that game, the Huskies went on to win five of their last seven, clinching their first bowl bid since 2015. Although the moment was a little too big at the Myrtle Beach Bowl, the season remains a resounding success. 

Few expected Connecticut to eclipse three wins, so their six is promising for their future with head coach Jim Mora. Despite returning QB Zion Turner, the man that won those six games, and last year’s day one starter Ta’Quan Roberson, the team is going in a different direction at QB. Starting is Maine senior transfer Joe Fagnano, who followed offensive coordinator Nick Charlton to Storrs.  

Fagnano was a good passer for an unimpressive Maine team that clinched just two wins. Regardless of the team’s record, he put up 2,231 yards for 15 touchdowns and has drawn the most Division 1 snaps of anyone in the QB room. He isn’t a prolific rusher, but is steady through the air and can use his legs when needed. With a solid offensive line for the Huskies, featuring 2022 AP All-American Christian Haynes, moving forward with someone reliable like Fagnano isn’t crazy. 

With 2022 starter Nathan Carter transferring to Michigan State, UConn will keep their dual RB attack of Victor Rosa and Devontae Houston. The pair combined for over 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, with Rosa accounting for 11. The Huskies lived and died on the ground last year, largely because of Turner’s inexperience. This year, expect a more mixed approach, though still favoring the rush, thanks to their rejuvenated receiving corps. 

Last year’s receiving leader Aaron Turner transferred to Cincinnati, but Delaware transfer Brett Buckman, NMSU Transfer Geordon Porter and returnee Cameron Ross are all ready to fill in the holes. Ross has spent his past three years in Connecticut, but has been injured for the last two. He hopes to finally have a healthy year and improve on his 723 yards he produced his freshman year with Jack Zergiotis under center. Also, watch out for redshirt freshman Kylish Hicks, who had an impressive fall camp. 

On defense, Jackson Mitchell and company are looking to stabilize the Huskies once again. Led by Mora, they forced errors and made life difficult for opposing offenses. In their last eight games, they allowed more than 30 points just once, and it came in a win over No. 19 Liberty. With Mitchell, a prolific linebacker with a nose for tackles, and sack-merchant Erik Watts, the team is in good hands. 

Looking at this game, expect a lower-scoring affair with both teams settling into their new-look offenses. It’ll be a gorgeous night, and with Rentschler Field packed to the brim, it’ll be important to keep the game close. Beating a team of NC State’s caliber is a tall task, but the Huskies cannot get blown out if they expect fans to return. The casual fan will be in attendance after an exciting 2022 campaign, and to keep them there, UConn needs to keep Connecticut football exciting. 

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