After a surprisingly solid performance last week against Wyoming for UConn Football, all eyes have shifted to this weekend’s game at Vanderbilt. It’s not terribly shocking that Vanderbilt hasn’t shown much of anything in their 1-3 start to the 2021 season, as they were picked to finish last in the SEC East this year. That being said, coming off a 62-0 loss against #2 Georgia last week, the Commodores will be ready to right the ship against a weaker Huskies team. Even the worst SEC team is still better than most other teams on UConn’s schedule.
The odds-makers clearly liked what they saw from the Huskies last week, as they roll into Nashville just 15pt underdogs. This is still a tough match-up for the Huskies, but they at least have some confidence and maybe even a little swagger for the first time this year. Can UConn win their first game of the season on the road against an SEC opponent? Let’s take a look.
Overall the Vandy offense has been just okay this season. They were able to break 200-yards in the passing game in their opening loss to East Tennessee State and in their lone win at Colorado State, but struggled more through the air in their last 2 games at home against Stanford and Georgia. The Vandy starting QB Ken Seals is good, but certainly not great with a 52.8% completion percentage on the year and a 4.6 average in yards per completion. He’s also thrown 3 TDs and 4 INTs, which is less than ideal, even against tougher opponents. When you average it out, they have only thrown for a tick above 162-yards per game this year, but I expect to see another 200-yard performance against the Huskies. Their running game has also been okay, with 2 games above 100-yards rushing, one of which was a shining star performance of 247-yards in their loss to Stanford 2 weeks ago. If we see the best version of QB and RB, then they could put up some points on UConn, but that’s a big if.
The Commodores defense has not produced much pressure on the QB this season and haven’t forced a lot of turnovers. As a team, they have just 1 sack (split between LB Michael Owusu and DL Daevion Davis), 2 INTs and 1 forced fumble. They have deflected 16 passes, but overall the stats are pretty lackluster. For comparison, the mediocre UConn defense has 7 sacks and 3 INTs on the year, albeit against lesser opponents overall. Vandy has allowed an average of nearly 37 points per game (skewed slightly by the Georgia game) and have allowed at least 21 points to every opponent thus far in 2021. All-in-all, the UConn offense should have an opportunity to at least move the ball a bit and put some points on the board on Saturday.
A big headline coming out of the Wyoming game was the emergence of an offensive identity for the Huskies. QB Tyler Phommachanh showed flashes of ball movement and driving down the field and even more importantly, an ability to bounce back from mistakes or stalled drives. It’s a low bar, but it was enjoyable to see the ball stay with the offense for more than 3 plays most drives and actually see an occasional great throw. While he wasn’t perfect, Phommachanh threw for 171 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, including a beautiful double flea flicker 42-yard TD strike to TE Jay Rose in the 1st quarter. In back-to-back weeks, Phommachanh has shown the ability to hit a big play on occasion, which is critical in opening up the opposing defense.
The run game was solid in the loss to Wyoming as well, with Nate Carter rushing 10 times for 65-yards and Phommachanh calling his own name 12 times for 36-yards. If they can establish more of a consistent running game it will help Phommachanh in the passing game and vice versa. The offensive line allowed 3 sacks and 15 QB hits last week, which needs to be cleaned up a bit. Some of that will happen with a young and mobile QB under center, but the key right now is to protect Phommachanh and give him as much time as possible to make plays happen.
UConn Defense/Special Teams
The defense for the Huskies showed some moxy last week. They pulled in 2 INTs to help hand the ball back to the offense and they held the Wyoming QB Sean Chambers to his lowest output of the season (149-yards). Where the team needs to improve is in the run game. The Huskies allowed over 200 yards on the ground last week and needs to get tougher up front. In addition, they didn’t get a lot of pressure on the QB and while that’s definitely related to the large number of rushes Wyoming had, it’s still a concern going into Nashville. They did get 2 sacks, but combined with only 1 other QB hit isn’t enough, even against a heavy-run team.
On special teams, Keelan Marion is now listed as the starting punt returner instead of Aaron Turner this week, which frankly makes sense with Turner getting more attention on offense. He had 6 catches last week to lead the Husky receivers and you want to protect him a bit going forward by giving him fewer special teams touches. Although to be fair, there was only 1 punt return opportunity against Wyoming, so it’s not exactly a big workload either way. In his one chance last week, Marion did have a 31-yard return, so he deserves the look.
Vanderbilt 28, UConn 24
This may be wishful thinking (or jinxing it), but nothing about this match-up with Vanderbilt is scary for UConn. Vandy has a solid team with some talented players, but no real standouts who need to be accounted for on each play. In some ways that can be more difficult to predict and gameplan for, but in other ways it allows UConn to establish their identity early and just play their brand of football (the one from the Wyoming game, not before). I think the home field advantage and a Saturday night game for the Commodores will carry them to victory, but just like last week, I think UConn will stick around and surprise some people. The keys to the game for UConn are ball security and not getting buried in a hole early. If they play smart football and the game stays close, UConn could be in business.