Villanova Wildcats vs. Connecticut Huskies
When: Thursday, September 3, 2015, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT
Coverage: ESPN3, SNY
UConn’s Previous Season Record: 2-10
Key Players for UConn: #46 Marquise Vann (6-0, 231) Sr., LB; #2 Graham Stewart (6-1, 237) Sr., LB; #20 Obi Melifonwu (6-3, 216)Jr., S; #4 Bryant Shirreffs (6-2, 220) So., QB; #5 Noel Thomas (6-1, 195) Jr., WR
Scouting Report: UConn is looking to bounce back after what was a rough first season for head coach Bob Diaco. Coming over from Notre Dame where he was the assistant head coach and earned a reputation as a great assistant, Diaco is attempting to restore UConn to a perennial contender as they were in the old Big East conference. Suffering through a brutal, last place season, there seemed to have been little hope for the program. However, the Huskies do have a few bright points for this upcoming season. Coach Diaco will be handing the keys over at quarterback to NC State transfer Bryant Shirreffs. Not much is known of the redshirt sophomore, outside of his one game in his freshman year, were he had a touchdown pass versus fellow CAA team Richmond. Based on his small sample size at NC State, Shirreffs is a mobile quarterback who will do most of his damage outside the pocket. Shirreffs’ top target will be junior receiver Noel Thomas. The Connecticut native is the Huskies top returning receiver, finishing the 2014 season with 305 yards on 26 receptions with a team high 4 touchdowns. As for the running back position, expect the Huskies to use both Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome. Johnson had a bulk of the carries last season, but this year the Huskies are planning on splitting the carries between these two backs. On the other side of the ball, UConn is hoping to have someone step up and fill the void left by Byron Jones, who was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. However, the Huskies will have much more confidence on the defense. They seem to be in good hands, thanks to senior linebackers Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart. Vann led the team in tackles last season with 105 wrap ups, while Stewart had a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss. Anchoring the line is senior defensive tackle Julian Campenni, who looks to build upon a strong junior campaign. These guys will lead a rather formidable front seven. Leading the secondary are the safeties Obi Melifonwu and Andrew Adams. Adams was the team’s ball hawk, leading the team with 4 picks while contributing 95 tackles. Melifonwu is a safety that has a nose for the ball, he is physical and makes his presence known with his tackling. Look for coach Diaco to utilize their defensive talents to throw off Robertson and the rest Villanova offense.
Outlook: Last year was a missed opportunity for the Wildcats to take down a FBS team. One special teams meltdown and a missed two point conversion, and the dream of upsetting of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome went down the drain. This time around Villanova is actually a 3 point favorite to win this contest against UConn. That being said, the Huskies are not a team to take lightly. With a new quarterback, a veteran defense, and a head coach with one year under his belt, UConn will certainly have higher expectations than last year and winning the first game will certainly help right the ship. However, I am not so sure that it could happen. The loss of Byron Jones and a junior quarterback who has only played one game his entire college career are large hurdles for Coach Diaco and crew. The Huskies struggled on offense and could have been even better on defense, but were not opportunistic with low sack and interception rates. Look for Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson to build off his impressive campaign and to exploit the weaknesses of the UConn defense. He and starting running back Gary Underwood will attempt to help Villanova beat and FBS for the first time since 2009. It will certainly be interesting to see if Underwood could run against a front seven full of veterans, which is why I feel that will be the matchup of the game. Hopefully, Villanova can get off to a quick start, which is what hurt the Huskies the most last year as they were outscored 106-22 in the first quarter last year. If Underwood and the offensive line can handle the veteran front 7 and if Robertson can play at any level resembling the one he did last year, Villanova should walk away victorious.
Prediction: Villanova 24, UConn 20