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Friend vs Foe: UConn

September 19th, 2013 by Josh DeMille

For this week’s Friend vs Foe, we are pleased to have Andrew Callahan of the SB Nation site The UConn Blog. He will provide his perspective on how the Huskies can beat Michigan on Saturday, which isn’t nearly as far fetched as we all thought it was a week ago. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @UConnFB_Andrew. As usual, Josh gives the Michigan perspective. Remember, this isn’t an actual game prediction, but rather a breakdown by both sides of what it will take to win.

The Huskies will win if they’re able to cook up the classic underdog recipe of defensive turnovers, offensive red zone efficiency and well-said prayers Friday night.

UConn has clearly struggled so far this season as anyone who’s bothered to look in their direction this year can tell you. While the Husky offense goes by a different playbook and new coordinator now, it still largely appears to be an extension from years that averaged fewer than 21 points. Meanwhile, the defense lost a considerable amount of talent to graduation and the NFL draft, which after 65 points allowed is crystal clear. The unit’s main problem is allowing a few big plays per contest that unravel what otherwise is a very stout performance.

On Saturday night, the Huskies are going to allow at the very least a handful of chunk plays to Devin Gardner and co., so it will be matter of maximizing what they can do on other snaps. They’ll hope to replicate Akron’s play and good fortune against the Wolverines last Saturday by collecting multiple turnovers. UConn forced Maryland to cough it up three times last weekend via two forced fumbles and an interception.

Linebacker Yawin Smallwood will try to have the kind of impact Akron's Justin March had last week (Ron Pradetto)

The team is likely going to have to accomplish this again on Saturday primarily by knocking balls out, as pass defense is the team’s weakest area. Also, the pick against the Terrapins came on an exceptionally athletic play from cornerback Taylor Mack who scooped a high, deflected screen pass. Of course, the chances of this happening again on either end are slim. Not to mention, if your fans are worried about lack of a pass rush, try zero sacks against Maryland and Towson, and then having to go against the A+ bookends they’ll see in maize and blue this weekend. Gardner will have time to make the right decision in a few nights.

Redshirt junior middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood is UConn’s best player, who also forced two fumbles last season. He’s a tackling machine with good instincts, man-to-man coverage capabilities and great strength. If UConn is to win, he’ll need to fill in on a lot of Fitz Touissant runs and create havoc either with a turnover or tackles for loss. You will see Smallwood playing on Sundays in a year or two, and Husky defensive tackle Shamar Stephen may even join him due to his excellent run stuffing capabilities.

Offensively, the Huskies must be a lot crisper in all areas than they have been so far against lesser competition. Maryland blitzed at an incredibly high percentage last weekend, and I’d estimate Greg Mattison will do the same given the Terrapins success against the UConn offensive line. Thus, the Huskies must first a good job of providing quarterback Chandler Whitmer with time to throw against pressure. Whitmer is very effective when he’s allowed to step in a clean pocket and deliver to the likes of outside receivers Shakim Phillips and Geremy Davis.

Each of these UConn wideouts must make tough catches downfield against Wolverine cover men, and they have the tools to do so. Neither possesses great speed, but they use their strong, tall frames to shield defenders well on short and intermediate routes. Given the due are also the Huskies’ best weapons, they’ll need to consistently make plays Saturday night, especially against tight coverage in the red zone.

Over the last two seasons, running back Lyle McCombs has owned the title of UConn’s top offensive threat with his good quickness, speed and ability to run well in tight quarters. So far in 2013, you can see those attributes haven’t left him, but the holes haven’t been there up front to run through and he’s been plagued by poor decision making when running. Expect a heavy dose of McCombs, since he’ll have to move the chains on the ground and in the screen game for UConn to move the ball.

I’d like to note that in last week’s FvF Matt Eliason pointed out, “It would take a lot of luck and bad turnovers by Gardner to keep the Zips in this game. Capitalizing on those turnovers with touchdowns and long time consuming drives could keep the Zips in the game.”

Akron did capitalize on some of the four Michigan turnovers (all but one of those were horrible decisions by Gardner) and also ended up with an almost seven minute advantage in time of possession. It was about as close to a worst case scenario as Michigan could get without suffering the worst loss since Appalachian State. But least App State was a dominant FCS team. Akron is not even a serviceable MAC team but anyway…

I’d rather not dwell on last week’s AppalAkron debacle but I do think it would be good to touch on the four key things I wanted to see out of Michigan and how they will apply to UConn going forward.

First, don’t give up big plays. Michigan gave up several and were it not for a missed field goal and another timely Blake Countess interception following two of those, Michigan may very well have lost. Kyle Pohl passed for 311 yards and had longs of 30, 28, 43, 40 and then 24 and 21-yarders on the final drive. Six plays of over 20 yards, and 67 percent of those went for (almost) 30 yards or more.

That is just not acceptable. While it is unrealistic to expect them to keep everything in the 10-15 yard range they will not win many more games giving up multiple 30-plus yard plays, especially to teams with inferior talent.

UConn likes to pass the ball, a lot. If Michigan is to beat UConn they will need to limit the big plays, and if not they will need Blake Countess to bail them out with more timely picks.

Will this be the game Frank Clark finally gets going? (Carlos Osorio, AP)

Second, get some significant pressure with the front four. Again, nothing. Michigan couldn’t even get to Pohl WITH the blitz. Yes, they had a couple quarterback hurries but Akron’s line won’t be sending anyone to the NFL anytime soon so this is a bit concerning. I won’t try to guess, or second guess, Greg Mattison’s play calling. However, it did appear as though he was using this game as a barometer for his four man rush. It failed, miserably. Later in the game when it counted the most he sent more blitzes and ultimately Brennen Beyer’s pressure on the last play of the game probably saved us from the second worst loss in 134 years.

If Michigan is to beat UConn they will need to get some pressure on the quarterback, period. If they need to bring the blitz so be it but they cannot let Chandler Whitmer sit back in the pocket and have all day to throw like Tommy Rees and Kyle Pohl did. Luckily for us UConn has surrendered 10 sacks in their first two games so this really isn’t asking too much, but the game isn’t played on paper so we’ll have to see what happens.

Third, find a reliable wide receiver not named Jeremy Gallon. While Gardner did spread the ball around to eight different players, only ONE had more than two catches. You guessed it, Jeremy Gallon. On the bright side, Jehu Chesson got in on the action and took his only catch 33 yards to the house for a touchdown. But other than that and Funchess’ 48-yard score in the first, Michigan had no one outside Gallon making any noise. I get that Gardner and Gallon have great chemistry, and that’s a good thing, but it’s been quite clear that Gardner locks in on Gallon far too often and against teams with better athletes that won’t cut it.

For Michigan to beat UConn someone needs to emerge as a receiver that Gardner is comfortable with. He doesn’t need to completely ‘trust’ them, at this point we just need someone to catch more than three balls and I’d consider that a major victory.

Fourth, run the ball well without the aid of Gardner. Another failing grade. Gardner rushed for over 100 yards, and we needed every single one of them, but this is not the read option with Denard Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Denard but the offense was one-dimensional with him back there. If Michigan wants to compete for a Big Ten title they cannot have a one-dimensional offense. Not to mention that Gardner’s back-up is a true freshman and while I’m excited to see Shane Morris play I don’t want it to be because Gardner went down after taking one too many hits.

I think Michigan can beat UConn without Fitz and Co. running well but I’d rather not see it play out that way. Any semblance of a running game will suffice. Just enough to keep the defense honest and not know where the ball is coming from or where it’s going.

I’d like to add a fifth point – stop the sloppy turnovers! Through three games Devin Gardner has shown us some electric moments and flashes of brilliance but he’s also shown us some incredibly bone-headed plays. Through the air he has  seven touchdowns to six interceptions, and that is not a formula for success. Forget the Big Ten title, this team will struggle to win eight games again if these turnovers continue at even half this rate.

UConn is not on the same planet as Michigan when it comes to talent, but neither was Akron. Michigan does not need to play the game of their life to win, but they still need to shore up some key areas, the biggest of which is turnovers. If Michigan eliminates the sloppy turnovers (bad reads, not securing the football, etc.) they will be in good shape. It would be nice to see them come out and get a great pass rush and have Fitz top 100 yards with Chesson and others accounting for more catches than Gallon, but just eliminating the sloppy turnovers should be more than enough to beat the Huskies.

This team should be out for blood and I expect this game to be less of a thriller.

  • PoopyLee

    The Connies still play football? Or are they still begging to get into a real conference?