UConn at Vanderbilt Football Preview – Saturday at 7:30pm ET (ESPNU)

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.

Vanderbilt Commodores

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.

UConn Offense

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.


Prediction

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.

UConn vs Wyoming Football Preview – Saturday at 3:30pm ET (CBSSN)

The odds have improved for the UConn Huskies as Wyoming roles into East Hartford on Saturday. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit misleading, but after spending 2 weeks as 33.5pt underdogs, they are getting the 3pt home field advantage and are only 30.5pt underdogs this week. They do come into this game with some slight momentum however, after a 21pt 2nd half against Army on the road, outscoring the Black Knights to close out the game. Was it a sign of things to come for the Huskies or a mirage in the desert of sadness? Only time will tell.

Wyoming

This has been an interesting 3-0 start for the Cowboys. They opened the season with a low-scoring victory over Montana State; down 7-3 going into the 4th quarter but won 19-16. Their next two games were significantly more offense-heavy with another 1-score win 50-43 against Northern Illinois and a blowout 45-12 over Ball State. It seems like their offense is more in line with their last few games, putting up big scores with a fairly balanced attack. In all 3 games, the Wyoming QB Sean Chambers has thrown for right around 200 yards and now has 5 TDs to 1 INT on the season. They balance the attack with some running by Chambers, but primarily RB Xazavian Valladay touching the ball 15-20 times per game. They have also leaned a bit on RB Titus Swen this season as a 2nd option.

The Wyoming defense is a bit of a head scratcher. They held Montana State to 16 in their first game, a team that scored 45 and 52 in their other 2 games this year and then the Cowboys allowed 43 to a Northern Illinois team that upset Georgia Tech in their first game 22-21 and couldn’t score more than 10 against Michigan, granted the Wolverines are a top-25 team. As a team, they have 10 sacks in 3 games so they know how to disrupt an offense. Just 2 of their sacks have come from linebackers, the rest from the meat of their defensive line which could definitely play a factor on Saturday with UConn’s offensive line having trouble protecting at times. Keep an eye on seniors DT Ravontae Holt and DT/DE Victor Jones (both from Sacramento, CA), who have a combined 5 sacks on the season.

Offense

There are a lot of changes on the depth chart on offense this week, but most are to align the chart with what we actually saw on the field against Army last week. Freshman QB Tyler Phommachanh is listed as QB1 for the first time, even though that became obvious when he played the entire game last week. He gained momentum in the 2nd half and began to get his legs under him, both literally and physically. All three receiver slots swapped starters this week with freshman taking those roles. One of Phommachanh’s favorite targets WR Aaron Turner jumped WR Jahkai Gill, WR Keelan Marion moved ahead of WR Heron Maurisseau, and WR Kevens Clercius passed WR Cameron Hairston. Same at RB, where freshman RB Nate Carter moved past senior RB Kevin Mensah.

It’s clear Lou Spanos is focused on the future by starting a freshman in almost every situation possible, even over established upper-classman. He wants to see if Phommachanh can develop chemistry with his classmates and create a core group going forward, which is a smart strategy. If they do develop as a group and stick around, Spanos or the next head coach can recruit around them, rather than needing to truly rebuild from nothing. This should be an interesting game for Phommachanh because the Wyoming defense has given up some yards on the ground, allowing 244 to Northern Illinois, including a 75 yard rush. If UConn can complete some passes to keep the defense honest and they unleash the run with Phommachanh and Carter, they could at least prevent the game from being a blowout before halftime and maybe even have a respectable time of possession number.

Defense

There were a few changes on the defensive depth chart this week as well, following a similar trend to the offense. Senior S Diamond Harrell has been dropped in the pecking order and freshman S Durante Jones and freshman S Malik Dixon will man the two-deep slots.

Every match-up is a tough one for this UConn defense, but this should be interesting to watch. The Cowboys balance their attack quite well without relying too heavily on 1 player. QB Sean Chambers has only thrown 72 times in 3 games despite the team putting up 40+ twice, but he makes smart decisions and rarely turns the ball over. They lean slightly more on the run, but that is partially a product of their recent blowout over Ball State when they took a 31-0 lead into the locker room at half (39 rushes to 23 pass attempts). RB Xazavian Valladay has 54 rushes this year for 245 yards, averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry and his backup, RB Titus Swen, has touched the ball 24 times for 116 yards (4.6 yards per carry). Chambers also definitely factors into the run game with 29 carries and 125 yards on the season.

Overall the offensive opponent this week is solid, but doesn’t appear to be explosive like some of UConn’s past match-ups. If the defensive line can get some pressure and be strong against the run, it could force more from the Wyoming passing game than they want and make it a bit more interesting.

Special Teams

There was some expected movement on special teams this week. Freshman Aaron Turner has moved ahead of Jahkai Gill as punt returner and after a really nice week in the kick return game, freshman Brian Brewton has officially taken over that role. After just 1 return before Saturday for 15 yards against Purdue, Brewton had 4 returns for 142 yards, including a 96-yard return for a TD in the 3rd quarter. It was a nice spark for the Huskies and if he can provide an occasional solid return and set the team up in decent field position, it will significantly help the offense put points on the board. He’ll be backed up by Robert Burns, who had 1 return for 18 yards against Army.

Prediction

Wyoming 49, UConn 24

While I think UConn shows more in this game and has some offensive success like the 2nd half of last week, they just don’t have enough to overcome the balanced attack of Wyoming. However, I do think there is a path for UConn to hold down Wyoming in the run game and force Chambers to throw more, which could force a turnover or two. I think a big success for this Huskies team would be to keep the game within 1-2 scores at halftime and stay within striking distance as late into the game as possible. Other than the Holy Cross game, they haven’t gone into halftime with even a chance to keep it close in the 2nd half yet this season. A close game would allow Phommachanh to experience the pressure and show the coaches how he performs when the game is actually still within reach. I expect at least 1 big play between Phommachanh and Turner this week as their chemistry continues to grow.

First FCS Points of the Season for UConn Football

It’s been a rough 2021 season thus far for the UConn Huskies Football team. Through just 4 games, the year has been punctuated by shutouts, inept offense, big plays allowed on defense, and coaching turnover. However, the 2nd half of Saturday’s game at Michie Stadium against Army, finally showed a few glimmers of hope that all is not lost (yet).

Coming on the heels of adding Offensive Analyst Noel Mazzone to the coaching staff, the Huskies made a surprising move this week starting their freshman QB Tyler Phommachanh. Phommachanh appeared on the depth chart this week for the first time this season as the backup QB with Jack Zergiotis and Micah Leon, but most were still expecting Steven Krajewski to take the reins. While the game started a bit shaky for the freshman, getting no help from his receivers, the 2nd half showed the potential of the Stratford, CT native.

While the Huskies would have lost this game regardless, a few awful drops in the first half would have led to big plays and maybe even TDs. If those catches are made, UConn would have put points on the board early and had some more confidence and momentum. That being said, the defense looked completely lost against the triple-option of Army and it felt like they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, which is not ideal.

Overall, Phommachanh looked better than his stats would make you believe. He finished 11 of 26 for 109 yards and 1 interception, but made several nice throws that decent receivers would have caught. He also made his collegiate debut on the road at Army in front of 25,000+ fans, which is not an easy venue for a young kid. He did run 11 times for 73 yards and 2 TDs, which is a huge asset for this team going forward.


I love the decision to go with the freshman at QB. It’s clear this season is going absolutely nowhere, so why not see what you have in these really young kids. We already saw more spark from Phommachanh than Zergiotis and Krajewski combined thus far, so it’s worth riding the wave and seeing if he can develop into a decent FBS QB. If he can continue to grow and learn, then in a year or two this offense might actually be putting up points with regularity. With the personnel of the Huskies, a QB who can take off and run when there is a hole will prove to be critical over the next few years.

While you never want to lose 52-21, outscoring Army in the 2nd half 21-10 is a significant step for the Huskies. Between the 97-yard kick return from freshman Brian Brewton or the perfect 50-yard pass to freshman WR Aaron Turner, it looked like real football from UConn. I’m hoping that in 3 years we are all looking back on this game as the beginning of this group jelling, sticking around, and continuing to improve year-over-year to bring UConn up to a respectable level. And hey, UConn beat the spread for the first time this season.

UConn vs Purdue Football Preview – Saturday at 3pm ET (CBSSN)

The first game in the post Randy Edsall 2.0 era will be a tough one for the Huskies. The Purdue Boilermakers roll into East Hartford, CT fresh off a win at home against Oregon State and are, understandably, 33.5pt favorites on the road. The first ever match-up between these two teams features the interim UConn head coach Lou Spanos in his first game at the helm. The first 2 games of the season were uninspiring and embarrassing, leading to the “stepping down” of Randy Edsall as head coach, so now is the time for a clean slate and hopefully some glimmers of hope for the future. Let’s take a look at the match-up.

Purdue

The Boilermakers are filled with experience on the offensive end. They have 9 returning starters on offense and are led by their junior QB Jack Plummer. They have an extremely potent passing attack which was on display in week 1 as Plummer completed 29 of 41 attempts for 313 yards and 2 TD, including a 50-yard game-sealing TD with 2 min left. His backup is 5th year Aidan O’Connell who threw for over 300 yards per game last year. The receiving core is very talented and showed it in week 1. Plummer completed passes to 8 different players and threw for over 40 yards to 5 of them. Three receivers averaged 20+ yards per catch, which will likely increase even more against the Huskies weak secondary. The run game is good, if not great, but it doesn’t need to be great with the pass-first attack.

The Purdue defense is solid, but not as impressive as their offense. They have a new defensive coordinator, Brad Lambert, who was the former Marshall Thundering Herd defensive coordinator. He’s aiming to turn around a D that was at the bottom of the Big Ten the last few years. DE George Karlaftis has the potential to wreck havok in the backfield against the suspect UConn offensive line. In his last full season in 2019, Karlaftis had 54 tackles (17 for a loss) and 7.5 sacks alongside a forced fumble. He’s projected as a 1st round talent in the 2022 draft and a player worth game-planning around.

UConn Offense

The big news this week with the coaching change is the switch from QB Jack Zergiotis as the starter to QB Steven Krajewski. Given the relative ineffectiveness of Zergiotis through 2 weeks, it makes sense that Spanos would give Krajewski a chance to take the starting job and maybe gain some momentum on offense. The other half of the battery is also changing this week with freshman C Christopher Fortin taking the starting job from junior Sidney Walker now that he is healthy. It’s worth watching early in the game if there are any issues with the snap given a new QB/C tandem.

For RB, Robert Burns has fallen off the chart, leaving Nate Carter as the backup for Kevin Mensah. The receiving core will look a little different with the likely season ending injury to their #1 receiver Cam Ross against Holy Cross. The Hartford, CT native Jahkai Gill will take Ross’s spot and brings far less experience with just 1 catch for 5 yards this year. He also has the odd distinction of being listed as a sophomore on ESPN, but as a senior on the UConn website, which is just odd.

I’m hopeful Krajewski can get some momentum and lead the Huskies offense down the field a few times on Saturday, but I’m not holding my breath. A new coach and new QB against a tough Big Ten team is a tall task for a team that couldn’t beat FCS Holy Cross one week prior.

UConn Defense

The defense appears to be lined up similarly to last week. They have the toughest task this week trying to hold down the pass-first offense of Purdue. This game has 60+ points against potential, which is terrifying. The UConn defense can take a big step forward this week if they can limit the big plays. In each of the first 2 games they allowed at least 1 huge 2nd half play to the opposing offense that was completely avoidable with solid tackling and smart angles. It’s likely that Plummer will have some success, but if the D can contain the deep passing game and be solid tacklers, they will have something to build upon going forward.

The other thing I’m watching in this game is the reaction of the defensive players after giving up a big play. It’s seems to snowball once they give up a big play, with the D struggling to regain composure and get a stop. To me, that’s at least partially coaching, which was reshuffled this week.

UConn Special Teams

Not much to report on special teams, except now that Jahkai Gill is a starting receiver, I expected him to do less in the punt return game. He is still listed as the punt returner along with Aaron Turner, but I assume he’ll see fewer punt returns if he’s getting more offensive snaps. Although the way the Purdue offense can score, I’m not sure how many punts there will be to return.


Prediction

Purdue 42, UConn 17

Purdue might just be overlooking the Huskies with a huge match-up vs #9 Notre Dame next week, but luckily for the Boilermakers, it won’t matter. Purdue’s strengths are UConn’s weaknesses which is a recipe for disaster. The air-attack will be damaging to the big-play prone Huskie secondary and I wouldn’t be shocked to see 3+ 40-yard plays against the UConn D. The Boilermakers take a 2+ TD lead in the first half and never look back. Krajewski does some promising things, but makes a few mistakes in his 2021 debut.