Football: Connecticut set for Peach State slugfest with Georgia State 

UConn football loses its first game of the season to NC State with the score of 24-14 at the Pratt and Whitney Stadium on August 31, 2023. Despite the loss, the popularity of the program saw its greatest resurgence in years, largely thanks to last season’s unexpected success. Photo by Connor Sharp/The Daily Campus

On Dec. 19, 2022, the UConn football team faced the then-first-year Sun Belt member Marshall Thundering Herd in the Myrtle Beach Bowl at the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers’ home stadium. 264 days (about 8 and a half months)The Huskies head down south for another Sun Belt clash in a Sun Belt venue, this time facing the Georgia State Panthers in the first-ever meeting between the two schools on Sept. 9. 

USA Today’s Paul Myerberg ranks the Panthers 104th in his NCAA Re-Rank while bumping the Huskies up from 101st to 84th ahead of the Baylor Bears. This matchup, UConn’s second under the lights in as many weeks, marks head coach Jim Mora’s first time coaching in Georgia since he served as an assistant head coach with the Seattle Seahawks in 2007. 

Coming off a 4-8 2022 campaign, Georgia State started their 2023 season on a high note, albeit a faulty one. Despite grabbing a seven-point home victory against the FCS Rhode Island Rams, the Panthers’ defense conceded 35 points and 520 total yards, numbers well above their averages from last year. 

Very few teams can win when allowing that many yards, but Georgia State did behind Gavin Pringle’s go-ahead pick six in the third quarter. Between the Bucknell transfer and Cody Jones, who had the Panthers’ other interception, both cornerbacks combined for fewer total tackles than Jeremiah Johnson and Bryquice Brown each had unassisted. One of the latter’s six takedowns pushed the Rams’ offense back a yard, representing a fraction of the 15 Georgia State collected on their five tackles for a loss. 

Clemson transfer Kevin Swint barely had more tackles for a loss at 1.5, matching his career sack total in one game with one that he shared with Louisville transfer Henry Bryant III. All of it adds up to a Panthers defense that, despite surrendering 6.9 yards per play against FCS competition, can suffocate any FBS foe. 

“They present a lot of problems,” Mora said at his weekly press conference. 

Beyond their defense, Georgia State avoided an upset because Marcus Carroll had a career game. Selected to the Doak Walker Award Preseason Watch List, the senior running back dashed for a career-high 184 yards and found paydirt three times. Maxwell and Manning Award Preseason Watch List selection Darren Grainger, meanwhile, found it twice in the air for 193 yards. Like Connecticut’s first opponent, the NC State Wolfpack, the third year starting quarterback’s explosive run plays can catch any physical opponent off guard as he scrambled for 51 yards on the ground. 

On top of grabbing a 39-yard touchdown pass, Robert Lewis terrorized Rhode Island’s defense with seven receptions for 97 yards while one of Tailique Williams’ two catches became a 42-yard score. The Panthers’ offense moves about as fast as a high school advanced placement course, something Mora will be consistently dealing with throughout the contest. 

“They will work hard to get you a little bit winded, catch you unready and then pop a run on you,” Mora noted about the offense. 

The Huskies’ run game also had a lot of pop despite their season-opening loss, collecting 160 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore running back Victor Rosa had both of the team’s scores, the second of which came on a 71-yard outburst that pulled UConn within 10 in the third. Mora highlighted an effective running back by committee system during his weekly press conference, one that also features junior speedster Devontae Houston (24 total yards) and Brian Brewton (19 total yards). 

Maine transfer quarterback Joe Fagnano collected 18 yards on the ground and showed a lot of promise in his first drive, leading Connecticut’s offense down the field for a season-opening touchdown. From there, the senior signal-caller’s FBS debut fell flat as he recorded a lackluster 113 passing yards and a 44.8 QB rating. Facing Group of Five competition for the first time in his career, Fagnano needs a complete game showing if he is to be the starter going forward, especially with the No. 21 Duke Blue Devils coming up in two weeks. 

Even though Justin Joly, Cam Ross and Brett Buckman each had receptions of 10 plus yards, the Huskies’ receiving corps needs a bounce back performance after dropping five passes against NC State. The same can be said for UConn’s defense, which surrendered 364 yards and 87 on kickoff returns primarily due to a litany of missed chances. 

“Great defenses tackle and we missed way too many tackles,” Mora commented. “That was the culprit on [August 31], and that is not like us.” 

The Huskies had five players average five plus total tackles per game last season; only Jackson Mitchell (15) and Durante Jones (14) exceeded that number with double-digit stops on Aug. 31. Malik Dixon-Williams, who averaged almost seven tackles for a loss last year, is likely not playing against Georgia State because of a slight MCL sprain sustained in Connecticut’s season opener. Replacing the redshirt junior in the secondary will be senior Stan Cross, who had an impressive week one performance with four total tackles and a pass breakup. 

Pryce Yates and Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List member Eric Watts held their own on the defensive line, collecting two out of the team’s seven tackles for a loss. Mitchell, a member of four different national award preseason watchlists, pushed the Wolfpack offense back one more yard than Yates did on his tackles, additionally breaking up a pass and hitting the quarterback once. 

UConn went 1-5 in true road games last season, and while Mora has noted the team’s improvements from this point last year, the only people who can demonstrate those improvements hail from within the organization. 

“It always comes down to us,” Mora explained. “How you play on gameday is a function of your mindset and that preparation that you made.” 

Kickoff at Center Parc Credit Union Stadium, the former home of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, commences at 7 p.m. on ESPN+. 

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