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Opponent Preview: UConn Huskies

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UC just slipped by the Huskies in the season finale last year. This season, the Huskies are trying to improve on a 3-9 mark despite losing several key contributors.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

While the first four games of the 2018 schedule are against non-conference foes, the Cincinnati Bearcats will have to challenge teams in the American Athletic Conference at some point this year. That will begin with a test against the UConn Huskies. That’s good news, as it should give the Bearcats a relatively easy starting point in league play. Of course the same could be said for the Huskies since UC was pretty miserable last year as well.

The Huskies welcomed back Randy Edsall as head coach last season and he ... did the exact same thing Bob Diaco did in his final year at the helm, finishing 3-9 and far from bowl contention. It seems like it may take a few more years for Edsall to build UConn back up into the relative power it was at the tail end of his first go-around.

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

Mark Sept. 29 on your calendars, folks. As the ninth month of the season begins its transition into the 10th, the Bearcats will visit Rentschler Field. The time of this contest has not been announced, but it will likely be during the day. The current renditions of these programs don’t exactly scream prime time matchup.

What They Do Well

You have to take a few liberties to really pick out areas that UConn is legitimately good at. Edsall did a good job of maintaining the program’s adherence to discipline. After finishing among the top three teams in the AAC in fewest penalties in 2015 and 2016, they did so again in 2017, committing only 63 infractions, which was behind only Navy’s 53.

On a less elite level, UConn actually threw the ball pretty well. The offense was still less than stellar, but with Bryant Shirreffs under center, the Huskies ranked fifth in the league in passing yards per game. That helped them finish 74th in offensive S&P+ as compared to outside-the-top-100 finishes in defensive and special teams S&P+. However, Shirreffs only threw for 14 touchdowns and he has moved on, leaving David Pindell as the quarterback with the most playing experience. It remains to be seen if that will win him the starting job. Pindell threw for 937 yards on 52.8 percent passing in 2017. He was intercepted six times and had four passing scores.

Due to some deficiencies on defense (more on that later), the Huskies were a team that returned kickoffs quite a bit. With 50 total, they led the AAC and ranked seventh nationally. Just returning a lot of kicks doesn’t mean much, but the Huskies actually made the most of those chances. averaging 21.08 yards per return, which was the fifth-best mark in the AAC. Wide receiver Quayvon Skanes had a lot to do with that and he’s back this year.

Lastly, and this is a bit of a niche area of specialty, the Huskies’ pretty porous defense actually found some strength on fourth down, allowing conversions on only 43.5 percent of attempts. That was second only to USF among AAC teams.

What They Don’t Do Well

Strap in. We’re going to be here for a while.

We’ll start on defense, where despite talented players like linebacker Junior Joseph and defensive lineman Cole Ormsby, the Huskies were pretty miserable. They allowed roughly 38 points per game and frequently got banged up for 500 or more yards. Their biggest weakness was against the pass, as they were the only team in the AAC to let up more than 300 passing yards per game.

For all its strong work on fourth down, UConn’s defense was wanting in other critical situations. Foes turned 47.5 percent of their third down tries into first downs and scored touchdowns on 39 of 53 red zone attempts. Perhaps the Huskies would have been better defensively if a few more bounces went their way, but they just couldn’t create turnovers, with only 11 forced all year. If you were wondering, that was tied for last in the AAC.

Switching sides of the ball, UConn didn’t perform well in those same situations when they had the ball. The Huskies were last in the AAC in red zone and fourth down conversion rate and were only better than UC on third down.

The offense was also marred by poor protection. They allowed 35 sacks. No other team in the AAC was guilty of more than 26. To compound the issue, the Huskies didn’t perform well on special teams all that often, especially when they punted.

Players to Watch

Quayvon Skanes, KR

Skanes did a few things for the Huskies. He was a top kick returner in the conference and was also the No. 2 receiver on the roster. He caught 35 passes for 355 yards and also averaged 20.8 yards per kickoff return.

Kevin Mensah, RB

The Huskies may be well served by running the ball more this year as they try to find Shirreffs’ permanent replacement. Mensah’s skill has a lot to do with that. He rushed for 561 yards, averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per carry and also made plays in the passing game.

Hergy Mayala, WR

Mayala had nearly half of the team’s receiving touchdowns in 2017 and also finished with 615 yards on 43 total receptions. All three marks were team-highs.

Tyler Coyle, DB

An already weak defense got a lot weaker this offseason as a host of big-time contributors graduated. Coyle remains and he will be tasked with building off a solid 2017 when he had 67 tackles, 3.0 TFL and two interceptions.

Series History

Mayala’s final touchdown reception of 2017 came in a pretty clutch situation last season. On the final play of the year, during the season finale against UC, he caught a two-yard scoring strike from Pindell; however, a missed extra point allowed the Bearcats to escape with a 22-21 victory. The series history is not nearly as close, with UC leading the way 11-3.

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

Yes and no. If you asked this question a few years ago, it would be an emphatic yes. Now UConn men’s basketball is in a bit of turmoil, so the prestige of this rivalry has taken a step back. Still, watching these two rebuilding programs play football is not all that aesthetically pleasing. Give me the annual basketball rock fights, please.

Prediction Time!

Last year’s matchup could have gone either way. This year, UC has greatly improved while UConn has lost a number of good players. For all we know, Edsall is going to turn the ship around, but 2018 seems like another season of learning and not improving. The Bearcats may be on the road in this game, but their chances have got to be pretty high to win.