Craig Has The Scout - UConn 2019
Who: Connecticut Huskies
When: 2:30 pm - September 7th, 2019
Where: Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT
Head Coach: Randy Edsall. Edsall is the same age as Lovie Smith, but it sure feels like he has been around much longer. I'm sure that is my college bias. Edsall has strong roots in the Northeast, having played and coached at Syracuse from 1976-1990. Edsall played and coached under Dick MacPherson during that time. He left Syracuse when MacPherson left for the Patriots. Edsall moved to BC, then the NFL. In 1999, he was hired as the head coach of UConn and piloted the transition to FBS football. Edsall had a good run in the depleted Big East. When the Big East imploded, the high level he had attained was on life support. He bailed for Maryland, was mediocre, and has been hired to salvage the husk of the program he left behind.* *
*Offensive Style: Single-Back. *At its base, this is an ace formation offense, generally out of shotgun. The offense reminds me of Kevin Sumlin's offenses - or more appropriately the running version of the Joe Tiller offense. The offensive coordinator is Frank Giufre, who took over when John Dunn bailed after a season. Giufre was the OL coach last year, so the offense is not a wild departure from the previous season, but the turmoil works against the stability Edsall is trying to establish. Giufre utilizes a lot of offensive line motion (ala Jim Wacker in the mid-90s), which requires the LBs to read keys and react slower. The downside for Giufre is that star QB David Pindell graduated, and he was left with a dearth of skill talent on the offensive side of the ball. The scheme is solid, but the pieces just aren't there.
*Defensive Style: 3-4 Cover 2 primarily, but officially "Hybrid". *The Huskies mix up the defenses and have multiple schemes they rotate through. They generally have 3 DL, but frequently will move to a 4-man DL. The UConn defense last year was statistically one of the worst in the history of modern college football and fired their DC accordingly. Into the firing line is Lou Spanos, a former DC at UCLA and an NFL LB coaching veteran. Spanos spent last season at the Saban Home for Wayward Coaches rehabilitation center, and moves to UConn trying to instill some of the wisdom he garnered.
*Specialists: *UConn went to Australia for their punter *Luke Magliozzi. *He came out of the same Prokick that delivered one Blake Hayes to the Illini. Magliozzi was a 24-year-old freshman last year and has a booming leg. The placekicker from last year transferred to Minnesota, and the placekicking is going to be a crap-shoot to start the year.
Three Things to Watch
Illini LBs in coverage.* *UConn will do everything possible to generate eye candy for the Illini LBs. They should try to sneak a crossing pattern behind it on play-action, and will RPO when possible. If the Illini are reading their keys, the Husky offense will sputter.
The Illini WR corps vs. the Husky Secondary. The defensive secondary for the Huskies is not great, but Wagner struggled last week completing passes consistently against it. The Illini WR should be able to garner some separation, and then Peters needs to be decisive with the ball.
Lovie as DC, part II. Lovie was very vanilla the first drive last week and began adding wrinkles as the game progressed. All in all, a very successful day, and one where he took away the opponent's strength. This week, he will need to read and adjust again, which breeds curiosity in me.
Scouting Review - Offense
It is always interesting to me when an OL coach takes over as the play caller for a team. Giufre, like most, loves to pound the rock. With the current state of the UConn program, a commitment to the run is not a bad idea. Giufre also boasts an OL with 92 combined starts that is four times more competent at run blocking than pass blocking.
Giufre has a new QB this year, Mike Beaudry. Beaudry is not near as mobile as Pindell was a year ago, and transfers in from Division II West Florida. Beaudry is a natural 50% passer and will be taking on FBS competition for the first time. Giufre will do everything he can to protect his QB in this case.
Kevin Mensah was a 1,000 rusher last year for UConn and had 144 yards against Wagner in Week 1. Mensah is getting a lot of carries on his legs, so he is a grinder of a running back. Mensah lacks an explosive top-end gear but gets the yards available to him. Art Thompkins transferred to UConn from Toledo and is the more explosive option. He is more shifty, and a better receiver out of the backfield. After those two, there is quite a void of talent.
The WR corps is young and inexperienced. The leading receiver in week 1 was FR Matt Drayton. The other receiver getting targets was SR Quayvon Skanes. Both are possession receivers and lack the speed to take the top off a defense. Heron Maurisseau was the target for most throws downfield, but Beaudry was not accurate enough to connect. According to Edsall, they had injuries in the receiving corps that limited their playbook.
Giufre is a rhythm play-caller based on the first game. Once he finds something that works, he pounds it until you stop it. Against Wagner, he ran the ball 60 times vs. 21 passes. Of those 60 runs, 30 of them I imagine was a version of the counter play. As I mentioned above, he bases everything out of the ace formation and uses his TE as a blocking H back for most plays.
Based on the first game (a nail biter, where UConn shot themselves in the foot and then benefitted from a pretty bogus facemask call late to clinch it), I think that the playbook will stay simple, and Giufre will use formations and motion to try and open up the Illini defense.
The first play to show, and it will be multiple versions of it, is the counter out of the Ace formation. Giufre ran the same play many times and mixed up the formations to keep the defense on its toes. This is the most rudimentary look (although in the 2nd version, the pulling guard is leaning pretty obviously).
In order to keep the defenses honest on this look, Giufre also mixed in a play-action pass out of the look.
If the talent were even, this would present Matt Canada level of problems for Illinois. Giufre did a nice job of identifying a weakness and pounding it.
To illustrate his difference ability to pound a play, while keeping the defense on its toes, Giufre changed up the formation to execute the same play. Here is the same play utilizing a close trips formation.
Mensah is a good back, and finds the crease and explodes through it. Giufre trusts his offensive line to make a small gap, and Giufre to maximize the yards.
The same play was run using motion across the formation to keep the defense honest. The motion did just enough to make the defense react.
In the first video, you can see the Wagner defense have to reset, and the LBs start cheating up on the run. The OL was good enough to seal the LB and allow the back to break a nice gain.
Should the Illini start cheating on the play Giufre emphasizes (against Wagner it was obviously the counter), they can utilize a few different runs out of the same formations. Just using the same motion set, Giufre also showed a pure inside zone run, a Power play, as well as a Dart play.
These three plays all have an element to the counter he ran most of the game. The zone has the down blocking he used in the Counter, the Power has the pulling guard, while the Dart has the H-back pulling. The similarities are enough to punish a defense that begins cheating on any given play. Against Illinois, I highly doubt he leans so heavily on the Counter, but suspect they use the Power instead. UConn has the read-option in their arsenal as well, but after Betiku's performance against Akron, I don't think Illinois will see it.
Beaudry will be forced to pass against Illinois more than he had to against Wagner. The Huskies prefer a set of quick hitters, as Beaudry has some issues throwing more than 20 yards downfield with the accuracy required. The first quick hitter to watch for is an RPO out of the zone run play.
They have a few different routes out, the above is a bubble screen and a dig route. The different looks keep the defensive backs honest against the run game.
Out of the Trips formation Giufre used as seen above, the offense has a couple of nice route trees. My personal favorite left a dig route open in the middle zone.
Beaudry looks like he had decided where this ball was going at the snap, which could lead to another costly turnover this week.
The other main play they ran was a series of 10 yard outs. The routes test the Illini LBs in the middle of the field, and Hansen in particular is not the finest in pass coverage on these routes.
I am very curious to see how Giufre attacks Illinois. He used the counter extensively against Wagner which took advantage of his superior OL vs. the DL. He will not have that luxury on Saturday, which means he will have to get more creative in finding an opportunity to move the ball.
Scouting Review - Defense
Randy Edsall is stuck in his rebuild of the Huskies. Last season, he had a historically inept defense that was littered with freshmen and sophomores. This season, he has an improved defense, but the number of underclassmen in key defensive roles is huge. While the defense may no longer be historically inept, it is still not good.
The Illinois offense really creates some issues for UConn. The defense has some difference makers, but the youth means they are going to get exposed. To cover up the deficiencies, the defense will show a number of different looks, moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and in certain situations a 2-5. The formation changes allows the defense to be aggressive and create uncertainty for zone run schemes and the pass rush. They have some personnel to make the front seven formations work at times, but each one has major flaws. They have left the secondary alone though. Bully on Edsall and Spanos for making the most of the hand they were dealt.
Spanos in his history is known for a solid base package, then adding specialty packages based on the opponent. In that regard, I am curious to see the difference between the game plan for Illinois and the one developed for Wagner. Spanos will have to find something to really special to beat the Rod Smith spread. The easiest way to beat a spread is to out-athlete it. UConn will not have an athlete advantage at any position.
The main look for the Huskies is the 3-4, and the Illini should see this the most with the spread option running attack.
The defensive line is technically sound, and they do a really nice job of using their hands. The LBs are very aggressive though and prone to overrunning their gaps. This might allow Illinois to break a deep one.
When the Seahawks went into the running spread, UConn switched to two down linemen for a chunk of the game. I am unsure if they did it for rotation purposes, or something they saw on film against Wagner. They moved to a 2-5 and used press man on the edges when they used it. This allowed the strong safety to sell out on run support early, and Illinois might see this look as well.
The defense gives the Huskies a chance to put extra athleticism on the field and shut down rush lanes. Against Illinois, the fact that Kendrick Green and both tackles are agile enough to block on the 2nd level effectively should negate this. Spanos will show it though.
In passing situations, Spanos showed both a 2-4 and 3-2 nickel look.
The Huskies used Press Man with both of these looks. The tape doesn't show it, but it appears to be a single high safety to prevent being beat deep. The press man allows the DL to get aggressive on the pass rush.
Overall, the defense has some interesting pieces. The total package though is lacking all the parts needed to stop competent offenses. The defense will no longer be epically bad, and move into just awful.
What does it mean?
Akron fielded a better roster last week, in year 1 of a complete teardown, than UConn will this week. The Huskies are adrift right now, and with the coaching turnover are implementing new schemes again. With no commitment to the program by the administration, Edsall is looking at a tall task. I am not sure a single player in the UConn top 24 would start at Illinois, and some players they will lean on heavily would not make the rotation in Champaign. The talent discrepancy is pretty vast, and on talent alone the Illini should win.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois needs to avoid a series of self inflicted wounds to win. The Illini offensive line was impressive last week, and will take on a reasonably green front 7 for the Huskies. On defense, Illinois needs to read their keys and attack the ball.
For UConn to Win:
Generate turnovers, slow the game down, and capitalize on opportunities. On offense, the Huskies are going to have to sow confusion on the Illini side and generate some explosive chunk plays. Defensively, they need to force multiple turnovers and turn them into points.
I've become incredibly over-optimistic about non-con Illinois, so I will take Illinois to cover this easily. I'll also guess Illinois has its second 60 point game in the 2000s.
YTD Against the Spread: