UConn held Wagner to just 185 yards of total offense Thursday night in their 24-21 season-opening victory. For reference, the lowest yardage total allowed by the Huskies in 2018 was 444, and they surrendered over 600 yards eight times over 12 games.
Last season, UConn’s front seven might as well have been turnstiles while the defensive backs wore cleats made of cement. They gave up the most yards per game in Football Bowl Subdivision history in 2018, but on Thursday they proved they won’t be anyone’s doormat in 2019.
“You all know what they went through last year,” head coach Randy Edsall said. “They didn’t want that to happen this year, so they’ve worked extremely hard and they’ve bought into Lou [Spanos] and his enthusiasm. They’ve picked up the scheme and they can execute and play fast.”
The Huskies flew around on defense and did a great job of keeping Wagner’s playmakers contained. They limited those pesky yards after catch that had hurt them so bad last season by meeting receivers at the ball and finishing their tackles. UConn kept the Seahawks held in check on the ground until Dymitri McKenzie broke off a 55-yard touchdown run up the middle late in the third quarter.
“We were controlling the game, and then we had some things settle in, but these kids never lost their poise,” Edsall said. “They kept battling and doing the things necessary in order to get a win. I’m really proud of them for that.”
One player in particular that fought well was graduate transfer from Notre Dame D.J. Morgan, who racked up a team-high eight tackles. The defensive line was also very impressive in this game, and looked way bigger and stronger than last season. The defense was able to get into Wagner’s backfield at will without sending extra guys. Ugwak set the tone with his pass rushing, harassing Wagner’s signal-caller Christian Alexander-Stevens all night and sacking him twice.
“I worked on a lot of techniques like flipping my hips and using my hands more,” Ugwak said. “In the weight room with coach [Matt] King, we’ve gotten a lot stronger.”
Alexander-Stevens struggled to figure out the Huskies’ defense, going 12-23 for just 82 yards. He wasn’t able to find anybody deep, and UConn’s tacklers didn’t let the Seahawks’ playmakers do much with the ball in their hands. Wagner was forced to punt six times by halftime, which was more than any team punted against UConn in any game in 2018. The Seahawks finished the day with eight punts.
New defensive coordinator Spanos has had his praises sung all offseason by Edsall, and the new hire seems to be paying off. Spanos has coached both NCAA and NFL football over his 24-year career, and spent 2018 with the Alabama Crimson Tide’s stellar defense.
“I love coach Spanos, he’s done a lot for us,” Ugwak said. “He holds us to a high standard and we like to play as fast as he wants us to and that’s really helping us out.”
UConn’s defense rose to the occasion on third down, holding Wagner to 1-10 on conversions in those situations. Getting off the field, establishing the ground game early and playing smart with the lead are three signs that this group of Huskies is much more mature and disciplined than they were last year.
“The defense came a long way and we knew that. From the first summer workouts, we knew that the defense was going to be good,” running back Kevin Mensah said. “All of the offensive guys are happy for them, we’re excited to see what they can do this year.”
Quarterback Mike Beaudry and running backs Mensah and Art Thompkins all ran for one touchdown each, combining for 234 yards on 60 carries. Though Beaudry looked confident passing the ball, especially in play action, he missed quite a few receivers deep down the field who had beaten their defenders. 14-21 passing for 158 yards isn’t a bad game by any means, but a costly third quarter pick-six let Wagner back into the game.
Leading 24-14 with 3:36 left in the game, UConn gave up a touchdown on a drive where they committed three penalties to make it a three point game. They were able to kill the rest of the clock by pounding the rock and picking up first downs.
A disciplined defense with a ground and pound offense seemed to be UConn’s identity in their first game of the season, and we’ll see if that becomes a recurring theme throughout the season.
Sean Janos is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.