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.

3 Takeaways from UConn Football’s Embarrassing Loss to Holy Cross

After beginning the season in difficult conditions against a very good Fresno State team and getting blown out, everyone was looking forward to facing a much easier FCS opponent in Holy Cross. The home opener was sure to be more interesting and maybe even get the Huskies into the W column, but Holy Cross had other plans. After a tightly contested first half, Holy Cross made a 3rd quarter statement and pulled away for the upset over the Huskies. Let’s look at 3 major takeaways from the game.

Jack Zergiotis Pocket Awareness and Mistakes

Overall, QB Jack Zergiotis made some better throws and showed off his talent more in this game after a weak performance at Fresno State. That being said, he again made some major mistakes leading to Holy Cross points and complete momentum shifts. For the 2nd straight week, Zergiotis was strip-sacked leading to a defensive fumble recovery. Last week the defense took the ball for a TD, this week their subsequent drive resulted in a TD. In both cases he was completely unaware of the pressure he was under and chose to leave the ball unprotected, which is just asking for trouble.

This week Zergiotis had a major problem with interceptions as well. He threw 3 INTs, including 2 in the 2nd half, and halted any chance of a comeback the Huskies had. He needs to clean up the mistakes if he wants to have any success at the collegiate level. If he turns the ball over 4 times against the Crusaders, how bad will it get against better FBS defenses?

While frustrating, he did throw for 174 yards and appeared to have some great chemistry with freshman Keelan Marion hitting him for 2 TDs including a 50-yard strike and a nice back of the end zone catch. This was a big step forward from game 1, but is overshadowed by the mistakes.

Disappointing Running Game

This one makes me scratch my head more than anything else with this team. The Huskies have one of the better RBs in recent history within a program that has produced some solid RBs and for some reason, can’t get any consistent running game going through 2 weeks. Kevin Mensah was poised to carry this offense in 2021 and to this point, he’s been a flop. In 2 games he has rushed for 109 yards on 32 attempts, a mediocre 3.4 yards per carry.

RB Nate Carter hasn’t exactly been lighting it up either backing up Mensah. He has gained just 38 yards on 13 attempts, an even worse 2.9 yards per carry. The issue seems to be with the offense line run blocking, which hasn’t been good. Against Fresno State, it makes sense why the line was outmatched, but to not be able to open holes against an FCS opponent is concerning. Usually one of the big differences between FCS and FBS teams are the offensive and defensive lines. It was clear on Saturday that UConn’s offensive line didn’t have a significant advantage over the Holy Cross defensive line and now 2 weeks in, run blocking is a clear weakness on this team.

If the running game continues to struggle, it will get harder for Zergiotis and the offense to have consistency and balance and we’ll see more single-digit scoring totals this year than we want.

Defense Giving Up the Big Play at the Wrong Time

For whatever reason, the Huskies defense continues to give up big plays to the opposing offense at the most inopportune times. The biggest in this game was the 76-yard scramble by Holy Cross QB Matthew Slutka. The Huskies defense missed several tackles on the 4th quarter run that led to a TD and a 10-pt lead for the Crusaders, putting the game away. Tackling fundamentals seemed to be missing and point to a lack of execution. I’m not sure if the coaching staff is not getting through to the players or the players are just making mental mistakes, but they will have a hard time winning anything if they continue to allow average quarterbacks free reign.

Even the best offenses can’t overcome continual scoring pressure from the opposing team and this is definitely not the best offense. The defense needs to contain the opposition and limit the quick-hitters to give themselves the best chance to hand the ball back to the offense without allowing points. If they held Sluka on that drive, they would have had a chance to give Zergiotis the ball back in a one score game with a chance to tie or win in the 4th quarter.


It was certainly not the result the Huskies wanted and it really puts the idea of a completely defeated season back on the table. Randy Edsall needs to get his team settled and prepped for a tough home matchup with Purdue on Saturday at 3pm.