We're at Game 8 in previewing Pitt's 2011 opponents. Next up on the Pitt Revenge Tour is a visit from the fighting Jim Calhouns.
Who the heck is Pitt playing? The Connecticut Huskies
When and where are we playing? Wednesday, October 26th at Heinz Field. Kickoff is at 8 PM. The game will be shown on ESPN.
Why should I care? REVENGE!! (part 2). And it's a Big East game.
What conference do they play in? The Big East, obviously.
How did they do last season? 5-2 in the Big East, 8-5 overall which included a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Plus they lost to Rutgers. But they did beat Pitt and West Virginia.
Who's the coach? Paul Pasqualoni, in his first season with the Huskies at the ripe age of 61. Older fans will remember him as the coach of Syracuse until 2004.
How many starters return? Five on offense, nine on defense, two kicker/punter
What's the offense like? UConn, like Utah, will run a multiple set offense, balancing between running out of pro-style and spread offensive sets, although Pasqualoni's NFL background plus the situation at QB leads me to believe that the Huskies will run a similar offense that Wannstedt ran at Pitt.
If I learned anything from UConn's run to the Fiesta Bowl, it's that you don't need a good offense to win championships. Which is odd if you look at the Big East championships in this current alignment. West Virginia under Rich Rod had explosive offenses in 2005 and 2007. Bobby Petrino and Louisville were no slouches on offense in 2006. And let's not forget the offensive shootouts that defined Brian Kelly's reign in Cincinnati. UConn in 2010, on the other hand, was very meh on offense, finishing at 96th in total offense at 326 yards/game. Correction: UConn had a fantastic running game with Jordan Todman at RB, who if remember ran for over 200 yards against our top-15 defense. The Huskies averaged just under 175 yards/game, which was 35th in FBS. It's the passing game that was bad a year ago and will most likely be terrible in 2011. Connecticut finished 110th in passing offense at 151 yards/game. Let me say that again: UConn averaged more on the ground than through the air. And you wonder how they were able to score enough points to win the Big East. A shocking fact ... well not so shocking when you consider that Wannstedt was the head coach, but UConn actually averaged more points per game than the Panthers at 26.4 points/game.
If you got the gist of the previous paragraph, or watched any UConn football game last year, you've realized that UConn is not great at the QB position. The Huskies actually started three different QBs in 2010. Zach Frazier was the initial starter for the first few games. But his poor play caused him to be replaced by Cody Endres, who has since been dismissed from the team. Mike Box, a redshirt freshman, then took over the UConn offense, only to be injured in the game against Louisville, which gave Frazier his job as starting QB back. But Frazier is gone now and UConn is left with a multitude of QBs who have very little, if any, game experience in college. UConn has FIVE QBs listed on their depth chart, I kid you not - and not one is listed above another. So you can understand why so many have their doubts about this UConn team and are doubtful that they will have enough success in the offense to repeat as Big East champions. Glancing at the depth chart, you have to give Box the starting job in the first game, as he's the only one with any sort of playing experience. But there's really no sure winner.
Running back, a position of strength for UConn recently, is also at a crossroads in 2011. With the departures of Todman and Robbie Frey, the position took a serious blow. But listed starter D.J. Shoemate, a transfer out of USC, was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school and could be the next star UConn RB. Some other names to watch are Lyles McCombs and Martin Hyppolite. At the fullback position, redshirt junior Mark Hinkley is listed as the starter, but it's another position where UConn's starter is gone. In other words, UConn has to replace the entire backfield in 2011 and that area is one big question mark this season. It'll be up to Pasqualoni and his offensive staff to get the unit ready for Big East play, because, let's be real - there isn't a non-conference game on UConn's schedule that they shouldn't win (Fordham, @Vanderbilt, Iowa State, @Buffalo, Western Michigan).
The wide receiving corps is one position where UConn didn't lose important pieces. Redshirt senior Kashif Moore, who led the unit in touchdowns a year ago with four (along with 36 receptions for 452 yards) will return to Storrs. He'll be joined by Isiah Moore, who had 15 receptions for 147 yards and a score, and Nick Williams, the only other lettermen for UConn. Outside of these three, there is no other game experience for the Huskies. Combine that with the QB struggles and it is not looking good for the UConn offense. But some other names to keep an eye on are Geremy Davis, Malik Generett, Frank Guardi, and Tebucky Jones.
The strength of this UConn offense will be the line, if only because the other units lose so much. The line returns three starters from last year in tackles Adam Masters on the right side and Mike Ryan on the left, as well as Moe Petrus at center. Ryan was first team All-Big East at his position while Petrus made the second team. So there is plenty of talent and experience in this unit, which should make the life of whoever is QB much easier. They do have to replace both guards, and that should not be overlooked. Gary Bardzak, who played in 12 games in his UConn career, will get the start at LG after moving from center. At RG, the listed starter is redshirt sophomore Steve Greene, who has shown promise in spring camp. The unit has to be strong if UConn is going to score enough points to stay in contests because of all the inexperience at other positions.
The offense is going to struggle in 2011, make no mistake about it. If Randy Edsall had stayed, I would have given the Huskies the benefit of the doubt as the players would have at least had a basic understanding of the system. But because of the coaching change, I can't see this side of the ball being as strong as the defense.
Ok, now what about the defense? UConn will alternate between a 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes in 2011, something Pitt will also do this season. Unlike the offense, the defense under Randy Edall was strong...well, strong enough to stop Big East offenses, which really isn't saying a whole lot. UConn finished 58th in total defense, allowing just under 367 yards/game. Now, I know what you're thinking - a strong defense wouldn't allow that much yardage, but chalk that up to the weak offense which forced the team to punt 79 times, which was 7th most in FBS. The Huskies were decent in rushing defense, allowing 143 yards/game. The passing defense was a little weaker, allowing 224 yards/game, but intercepted 20 passes. The team returns nine starters to this defense that turned over opposing offenses 31 times, so it should be no surprise when I say that there is plenty of promise going into 2011.
The defensive line returns a lot of talent from a year ago, starting with redshirt senior Kendall Reyes at one of the tackle positions. Reyes was a first team All-Big East member in 2010. The other tackle position will be held by redshirt senior Twyon Martin, who has 31 starts under his belt. The ends will be manned by Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams, both juniors and both have played a lot at UConn. I don't expect the unit to step back at all under the new coaching staff. Other names to watch in this unit are redshirt sophomore Shamar Stephen at tackle and Marcus Campbell at end.
The linebacker unit is where UConn lost some serious talent with Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus both gone. But the unit does return junior Sio Moore, one of the best in the Big East at his position and was second on the team in tackles with 110. After Moore, there is some experience with Jory Johnson, David Keeney, Kijuan Dabney, and Jerome Williams, but none of these players have starting experience, so expect the unit to take a hit production wise at first as I don't think anyone has the abilities and talent to immediately replace the loss of Wilson and Lutrus, but UConn under Edsall always managed to find those hidden talents, especially on defense. Pasqualoni has experience coaching in the Northeast, so I have faith that he will be able to find similar players.
The secondary returns everyone from a year ago where they were, in my opinion, the best in the Big East. The corners will be held by juniors Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, who both started all 13 games for UConn in 2010. At safety will be Jerome Junior and Harris Agbor. But as I said above, the unit is great at causing turnovers, something you can bet they will do in 2011. There is a ton of experience in the starting four and barring losses to the draft, most will return in 2012. So you can expect this unit to be the strength of the UConn defense for at least the next two seasons.
The defense is clearly better than the offense and it's not even close. With all the talent and experience returning on the defensive side of the ball, you can expect UConn to continue to be tough and physical on the defensive side and force a lot of turnovers. They'll need that if they expect to contend for another Big East title in 2011.
What about the special teams? UConn returns both kicker and punter from a year ago. Dave Teggart was an All-Big East pick a year ago and kicked two game winning field goals, including one at USF that sent UConn to the Fiesta Bowl. Chad Christien will handle kickoff duties while Cole Wagner will be in charge of punting. Returner Nick Williams, who led the nation in kickoff return average, also returns.
Prediction? Both teams have the previous week off due to the game being on Wednesday and looking at both teams, Pitt is clearly more talented. That being said, UConn has surprised the Panthers by keeping it close in 2009 and beating Pitt last year. The good news is that Randy Edsall is gone and the game is in Pittsburgh. UConn's defense is good, but the offense has way too many question marks for me to think that UConn will be able to walk out of Heinz Field with a win. Pitt wins 31-14.
All stats are courtesy of the NCAA. Information on UConn's starters can be found on UConn's 2011 Media Guide.
Want more information on UConn? Head over to...The UConn Blog (very original).