Out of the nine opponents the UConn football team has faced in 2023, five have earned bowl eligibility and won at least six games while the other four are each 4-5. UConn does not have a bowl-eligible team left on its schedule but does not quite catch a break as its three-game road trip concludes in Harrisonburg, Virginia, versus the 9-0 James Madison Dukes on Saturday.
This is the first time both schools will meet at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. James Madison went 4-1 in the previous five matchups when both institutions were members of the Yankee and Atlantic 10 Conferences. Football Championship Subdivision powerhouses that make the jump initially struggle at the FBS level, but the Dukes have been an exception in that regard. James Madison possesses a 17-3 record since joining the Sun Belt Conference and the FBS in 2022 with a road victory over the Virginia Cavaliers back in September and a 7-1 mark in one-score games during that span.
Despite their sustained success, the Dukes cannot go bowling or participate in the conference championship game because of NCAA rules regarding the two-year transition period from the FCS to the FBS. Although they have not been ranked in either of the two College Football Playoff polls as a result of those guidelines, James Madison holds the No. 21 spot in the Associated Press Top 25.
Senior defensive lineman Jalen Green’s season-ending knee injury suffered in last week’s victory leaves a significant hole in a Dukes defense that allows under 20 points per game. No one individual can replace Green’s FBS-leading 15.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss, but James Madison has several players who can carry his workload. Redshirt sophomore Mikail Kamara ranks third on the team with 21 tackles for negative yards and leads the program with three forced fumbles. James Carpenter has 40 total tackles while redshirt senior Jamree Kromah ranks second on the team with 16.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks.
One of seven remaining undefeated teams in the nation—five of whom hold the top five spots in both the CFP and AP Top 25 polls—the Dukes support their dynamic defense with a dual-threat passing attack. Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week Jordan McCloud crossed the century mark through the air and on the ground for the first time in his collegiate career last Saturday, additionally earning Manning Award Star of the Week recognition. Through nine games, McCloud has 28 total touchdowns with 2,330 passing yards and 314 rushing yards.
Wide receivers Reggie Brown and Elijah Sarratt are responsible for nearly 60% of those yards through the air on 83 combined receptions. Shutting down either receiver that averages over 75 yards per game does not clear an opponent from the woods yet as redshirt senior Phoenix Sproles, the cousin of Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2010s Team selection Pro Bowler Darren Sproles, has at least 50 receiving yards in three out of his last four games.
Like a majority of the Huskies’ 2023 opposing gunslingers, McCloud can scramble with his legs as he is one of three players who averages at least four yards per carry. Redshirt senior running back Ty Son Lawton averages 4.8 yards on his 91 carries with four touchdowns, a slight step up from the 4.3 that redshirt sophomore Kaelon Black collects on his 114 attempts.
Lawton and McCloud each had more rushing yards by themselves than Connecticut did in their 59-3 loss against the now-No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers last week. Jalen Mitchell had 28 of the Huskies’ 32 total rushing yards on a season-best eight carries, continuing a trend where the graduate running back has received more opportunities in light of Victor Rosa’s injury. Cam Edwards has become more involved in the offense since UConn’s bye week, and as the team’s primary rusher for the time being, expect the sophomore running back to pick up at least 50 yards for the third time in the last four weeks.
Head coach Jim Mora saw progress from quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson despite his two pick-sixes versus the Volunteers last week, specifically focusing on the redshirt junior’s arm talent. Since taking over for Week One starter Joe Fagnano, Roberson has had four games with over 200 passing yards, but Mora believes that his last two contests against Power Five competition will help him grow in the long run.
The Huskies’ top three wide receivers have developed alongside the redshirt junior quarterback as the season has progressed. Justin Joly’s 408 receiving yards put him eighth in the nation across all tight ends while wide receiver Brett Buckman has become one of Roberson’s top weapons. Mix that in with junior Cameron Ross (353 yards) and graduate student Geordon Porter, and Connecticut can keep close with anyone through their passing game.
Despite surrendering 59 points at Rocky Top and 41 against the Duke Blue Devils in mid-September, the Huskies’ defense has held strong on their end when it comes to keeping contests within a single possession. Senior linebacker Jackson Mitchell and junior defensive back Durante Jones have been the biggest contributors on that end with 146 total tackles and two fumble recoveries between them.
As he has played more snaps in the backfield, Lee Molette III has cemented his place as one of UConn’s next defensive anchors. The sophomore linebacker has recorded eight total tackles in two out of his last four games and added a tackle for loss versus a potent Tennessee offense last week. Junior linebacker Tui Faumuina-Brown’s breakout campaign has been one of the other bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming season for the Huskies.
Kickoff in Connecticut’s third straight game against an opponent with a winning record begins at 2 p.m. EST on ESPN+. Fans who do not have a subscription to ESPN’s streaming service can also catch the contest on the radio via the UConn Sports Network on 97.9 FM.