Was Edsall the Problem for UConn Football?

After the UConn Huskies Football team lost a last second heartbreaker on Sunday on the road at Vanderbilt, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the gutsy performance. This UConn team looks completely different over the past 10 quarters and is starting to show signs of life and hope for the remainder of the season and next season. While I thought the failure at the beginning of the season was due to inferior talent, in reality, it was inferior coaching?

The beginning of this season was historically bad for the Huskies. Through the first 3 games of the season UConn was outscored 132-28 and scored 0 pts against their 2 FBS opponents. It appeared the Huskies just didn’t have the talent to compete with anyone and the sky was definitely falling in Storrs (you can see my reaction after 3 games here). Then, Randy Edsall “retired” early, Lou Spanos took over and things began to shift.

The beginning of the Spanos era looked a lot like the Edsall tenure with a 0-pt first half against the Army Black Knights at Michie Stadium. Apparently another 40-pt deficit was what pushed UConn over the edge and they come out in the 2nd half motivated and ready to role. Since halftime of the Army game, UConn has outscored opponents 71-64 in 10 quarters. If it wasn’t for a missed 2-pt conversion against Wyoming and a last second Vandy FG, UConn could be 2-4 instead of 0-6. They have beaten the spread 3 straight games, in one case by 30+ points and have energy and offensive creativity.

The most likely explanation for the shift is the Edsall to Spanos transition. Unlike Edsall, Spanos is high-energy and exudes confidence that is contagious. He’s not afraid to make a bold play call on offense and air the ball out as needed, the opposite of Edsall’s uber-conservative run-first offense that was both boring and ineffective (i.e. three rushes up the middle and punt). The more creative offense has clearly allowed the players to feel more ownership and use all their talents on the field. That’s a critical piece when you aren’t recruiting SEC-caliber guys in the program – maximize the skills of the players on the field.

Spanos rightly made the switch at QB and RB to freshman in order to look toward the future. The switch was significant and has proven to be correct, but what’s most interesting is what happened when starting QB Tyler Phommachanh went down with an injury on the 2nd drive against Vandy. Senior Steven Krajewski came in and for the most part, played well. It seems like a small thing to have a backup QB play well in a game, but it shows that despite being jumped on the depth chart by a freshman, Spanos made sure Krajewski was ready to go and had the confidence to perform and lead a big comeback in the 4th quarter. That’s a product of leadership and a player’s confidence in his coach, something that seemed to be missing over the last several years.

While Edsall did a lot for this program early on in the FBS transition, his performance as a coach at times near the end of his first tenure and the entirety of his second tenure was poor, at best. His inability to adapt his style to his personnel surely cost UConn wins over the years and the rash of transfers away from the program during the last 5-years is a gigantic red flag. A few is normal, but 25+ transfers after the 2019 season was just sad and telling as well as stunting for a programs development. If you were a manager of 100 employees and 25% of your direct reports left around the same time, maybe it’s worth looking in the mirror and taking time to update your resume.

With a winnable game on Saturday against UMass, UConn will hopefully take the next step and get a W under Lou Spanos and continue to grow toward next season and a new head coach. There is certainly a lot more hope and confidence on the Huskies sideline than at any other point over the last few years with Randy Edsall gone and as a fan, the product on the field is significantly more enjoyable to watch. Now that the program is pointed in the right direction, every step is a step in the right direction.

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.

UConn at Army Football Preview – Saturday at 12pm ET (CBSSN)

Another week, another rough matchup for the UConn Huskies football program. UConn will hop on buses and head to West Point, NY to play Army on Saturday as 33.5pt underdogs, and rightfully so. The 2-0 Black Knights began their season with a blowout on the road at Georgia State and squeaked by Western Kentucky by 3 in a high-scoring battle last week, after a 21pt 4th quarter from the Hilltoppers. Army has to feel pretty confident they will be 3-0 as UConn rolls into town this weekend.

Army Black Knights

The Black Knights are known for their triple option offense, which generally is difficult for UConn to handle. As the name suggests, it creates 3 potential running options for the offense on any given play – a QB run/keeper, a classic RB handoff run, or a toss outside to a RB or WR. Army has 4 players who have 10+ rushes on the season already, including 3 with 90+ yards and 6 players with a rushing TD this season in 2 games. QB Christian Anderson has already run for 174 yards in 2 games (averaging 4.7 yards per carry), while passing just 8 times (6 completions) for 117 yards. He’s their primary runner, with RB Jakobi Buchanan as RB1, who has rushed 29 times for 99 yards. They also use RB Tyrell Robinson and RB Anthony Adkins in the option game, both of whom can keep a defense off balance.

The biggest issue when facing the triple option is play awareness and adjustment to the action, which can be harder for younger, less experienced talent like UConn. If they limit the amount they throw the ball like the first few games, that will help the secondary play the run and hopefully limit the amount of big explosive plays from Army. We’ll likely see multiple 12-18 play drives from Army as they get 3-5 yards each play and keep moving the chains down the field. It’s not always pretty and fun to watch, but it can be very effective.

On the defensive side of the ball, Army has a few very talented and dynamic players, most of whom are sophomores or juniors. Junior LB Andre Carter II has been a beast to begin the season with 4.5 sacks in 2 games, including 3 in their season opener against Georgia State. He will be a challenge for the offensive line along with their 2nd leading tacklers senior LB Arik Smith and sophomore LB Spencer Jones. In the secondary, junior DB Marquel Broughton and sophomore CB Jabari Moore both have 2 passes deflected and an INT each on the season so far and CB Julian McDuffle leads the team in tackles with 10.

Offense

After another goose-egg last week vs. Purdue, the UConn offense has a lot to prove this weekend at Michie Stadium. The offensive depth chart has basically remained the same, but interestingly, the backup QB role is now listed as an OR situation between redshirt junior Micah Leon, freshman Tyler Phommachanh and sophomore Jack Zergiotis. I’m not sure if this is intended to be a statement to Zergiotis about his status on the team or a chance to recognize that the other two QBs have been putting in the work in practice. To me, it says that Lou Spanos isn’t afraid to make a change if needed and put in who he feels could perform the best at any given moment regardless of where they are on the depth chart. Given the lack of offensive production, why not throw all darts at the board and see what sticks.

I’ve said this before and I’ll probably have to say it again, but UConn needs more production from their running game. It’s been disappointing and flat so far in 2021 and a strong run-game can open up the passing game and give whoever the QB is time to throw and separation for the receivers. A net-gained rushing yards of 331 and 2.4 yards per carry between 4 RBs, 2 QBs, a WR and a TE is embarrassing in 3 games. Compare that to opponents who have gained 639 yards on 4.3 yards per carry against the Huskies over that stretch in just 26 more attempts.

Defense

This will be a potentially tough match-up for the Huskies on defense. For a D that has had some trouble giving up big plays in the run and pass this year, they will need to be smart and hold their assignments in the run game. The Army offense has rushed 134 times in 2 games for 597 yards and 8 TDs and will be looking for more of the same on Saturday. Getting stops on 3rd down and getting off the field will be the key for this defense and their stamina through the full 60 minutes. With long drives and small chunk gains, the Army offense will wear down the defense, especially the lineman and linebackers leading to larger and larger holes as the game wears on.

If the UConn defense can limit the long 10+ play drives and force a handful of punts, they will have a chance to at least look respectable. Army’s offense doesn’t score quickly and in bunches, so some early scoring will put pressure on the triple option and perhaps force a few more passes than in previous games. Although QB Christian Anderson is capable of making a throw when needed, forcing him to throw more often and pushing him out of his run-first preference is definitely to UConn’s benefit. I’m not sure UConn is talented enough to accomplish that, but it should be a focus.

Special Teams

Not much to see here, but worth noting that the punt team could play an important role if the game progresses as we expect. We know the UConn offense will stall at times, and with an Army team that likes to pick up small yardage per play on long drives, pining them deep in their own zone on punts can swing the field position battle and give UConn a better chance for stops. Basic statistics show that it’s harder for a team to go 80+ yards than 60+ yards on a drive, so being able to swing field position when they’re not able to score will be beneficial.


Prediction

Army 42, UConn 14

This will finally be the week that UConn beats the spread (by a little) and shows some semblance of life. They will still lose big, but the offense will finally put some points on the board against an FBS opponent and have a little more balance. The key to this game for both teams is sustained drives and in the end UConn’s defense will be exhausted in the 4th quarter and give up and extra TD or two making the final score even uglier. QB Steven Krajewski will establish himself with an 150+ yard passing game and cement his role as QB1.

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.