by Jeff Ouellet, 9/25/03
Saturday September 27th, 2003, noon Eastern
TV: ESPN Regional (click here for station list)
Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
Many fans scoffed at the notion of the Big East adding the Connecticut Huskies to the Big East Football Conference beginning in 2005. After all, UConn had no history, inadequate facilities at the time and a very small recruiting base that historically has been cherry picked by Notre Dame, Boston College and Syracuse among others.
A funny thing happened on the way to UConn becoming Temple and Rutgers, however; the Huskies took a u-turn and won six games last season with likely more success on the horizon this year. Instead of becoming a D-IA also ran, UConn is poised to be a factor in the post Miami/VT Big East.
The football success of UConn can be traced to the commitment made by the administration and its fan base (read: taxpayers) to field a competitive team, and the fact that the Huskies hired an up and coming coach named Randy Edsall to oversee the transition. Edsall is a very good coach with an impressive resume and, perhaps most importantly, the disposition to handle the inevitable losses associated with moving to Division I-A.
This year the Huskies are 3-1, which includes a 34-10 thumping of Indiana and a fairly close loss to Boston College, 24-14. UConn is fifth in the country in total offense, averaging 497 yards per game, and they have talent and experience on both lines in particular. The Huskies return approximately 15 starters from last seasonís 6-6 crew, and many of them have more than one year of starting experience under their belt.
For the 3-0 and fifth rated Virginia Tech Hokies, this is an Upset Special game, as noted by Will Stewart in his Texas A&M post-game analysis. It is a game the Hokies should clearly win, but with the rash of surprises last week, I am quite certain the VT staff is spending lots of time preparing for a team that would be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team right now.
The most celebrated player on the UConn offense is 5í7", 180 lb. SO tailback Terry Caulley. Caulley led the nationís freshmen in rushing last season, averaging 124.7 yards per game, a figure that placed him ahead of more celebrated classmates like Maurice Clarett and T.A. McClendon. This season Caulley has set the bar even higher, as he is averaging 150 yards per game, second in the country, with an impressive 6.9 yards per rush. Admittedly he hasnít played great competition for the most part, but he did average nearly 5 yards per rush against BC (99 yards on 20 carries). He also is fourth in the nation in rushing touchdowns (7).
Caulley had a great high school career in Maryland but was bypassed by many of the big-name programs because of his height. In some respects, that height is an advantage, because it enables him to hide behind his offensive linemen, read their blocks and then cut quickly because of his low center of gravity. Some backs are fast and some are quick; Caulley is both. Caulley is also the Huskies third leading receiver with 14 catches, although he has a modest five yard per catch average. SO Deon Anderson is Caulleyís bodyguard at fullback, and heís a solid blocker and returning starter.
While Caulley is an excellent back, the key to UConnís hopes in Blacksburg rest squarely on the shoulders of 6í5", 229 lb. JR quarterback Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky is perhaps the most highly decorated player lured to Storrs by Edsall, as he was on virtually all of the recruiting lists. Orlovsky entered the starting lineup as a true freshman when former starter Keron Henry (who played in Blacksburg two years ago) was injured, and heís been a staple in the lineup ever since. Orlovsky had a very nice year last season as he threw for 2,488 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing 60% of his passes.
This season Orlovsky has also had good numbers, throwing for nearly 280 yards per game with a 60% completion rate, and he is tied for second in the nation with 11 touchdown passes. He is a traditional pocket passer type with an accurate arm that has enough strength to make all of the "pro" throws. He is a legitimate NFL prospect. Orlovsky also has thrown six interceptions, a fairly high number, with three of them coming against BC, so he is capable of making mistakes.
Much like VT, you need a scorecard to keep track of all the wide receivers used by the Huskies. The most prominent of the receivers is former walk-on Shaun Feldeisen, a 6í1", 218 SR. Feldeisen has 23 catches on the season for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Junior OíNeil Wilson, while technically not a starter, is second on the team with 20 catches for 227 yards, and he has four touchdowns.
The big play artist at wide receiver is none other than the aforementioned Henry, moved to wide receiver after being displaced at quarterback by Orlovsky. Henry is averaging 19.4 yards per catch on 12 receptions this season. Henry impressed me with his athleticism, given the conditions, two years ago in Blacksburg, and I am not surprised by the move. The wide receivers have had more than their fair share of drops this season.
The tight end position is not a major weapon at this point for UConn, with freshman Dan Murray averaging a catch per game.
As with any good offense, the offensive line is good. UConn starts four juniors and a sophomore that combined have 79 career starts. The line size wise is what you would expect from a Division IA program, as the starters average 6í3", 295 across the board. UConnís line is a lot more Denver Bronco rather than Redskin "Hog," by which I mean the linemen hold their blocks using position, thereby allowing Caulley to pick his hole or permitting Orlovsky to have a throwing lane. UConn tends not to try to run through people, which makes a lot of sense, given the strengths of their players.
Trying to get inside on Emeka Okafor is almost impossible . . . oh, wait, wrong sport. Regardless, this defense is good. Edsall spent three years working in the NFL for Tom Coughlin as a DB coach Ė thatís calendar years, not Al Groh NFL years Ė and he served as George OíLearyís defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech prior to taking the Connecticut job. Edsall is well versed in what it takes to play good defense.
Last year UConn finished fifth in pass defense and 19th in total defense, and they have seven starters back. This yearís crew is permitting only 123 yards rushing per game, an average of 3.2 yards per carry, and 164.5 passing yards per game. Both figures are good.
The defensive line for UConn has significant experience and some playmakers. Defensive end Uyi Osunde is a 6í3", 248 defensive end who is getting a look from the NFL as a situational pass rusher. He particularly fits in a 3-4 scheme now, but he could get a look in a 4-3 if he can put on some weight. He had 9.5 sacks last year which led the team, and he has two sacks this season. Bookend defensive end Tyler King is 6í6", 255 and has contributed 2 sacks and a team leading 12 quarterback hurries. Even backup DE Hakeeem Kashama has 2.5 sacks.
SR Sean Mulcahy is a 6í6", 292 lb. playmaker inside at defensive tackle, as he has three sacks and 6.5 total tackles for losses already this season. He is joined inside by Ryan Bushey, another senior who has 1.5 sacks and is capable of keeping gap control at 6í3", 288.
The four defensive line starters for UConn average 21.3 starts between them, so these guys have seen it all. They arenít Miami or Pittsburgh (probably a good thing for UConn on the latter comparison, given Pitt's performance against Toledo), but they have a better front than many of the teams VT will play this year.
UConnís linebacker corps is solid and makes a lot of plays. The leading tackler is sophomore strongside linebacker James Hargrave, who has 37 tackles thus far and four tackles for losses. The third leading tackler for the Huskies is junior middle linebacker and returning starter Alfred Fincher, who has 34 stops on the year, and the fourth leading tackler is another returning starter, junior weakside linebacker Maurice Lloyd (28). All of the linebackers run well and are freed up to make plays by UConnís front four.
The secondary is the area where UConn is most vulnerable on paper. The Huskies only have one returning starter, SR free safety Terrance Smith. Smith is very active, as exemplified by the fact that he is the second leading tackler on the team, and he is the only member of the backfield who is close to a physical prototype at 5í11", 202. The other safety is smallish John Fletcher, who is 5í9", 176. Fletcher plays the traditional strong safety role, although in its base 4-3 alignment UConn often uses its safeties interchangeably (i.e., right and left safety rather than strongside/weakside).
The best cover corner is Justin Perkins, a 5í11", 166 SO who has successfully battled back from a knee injury. The starter on the other corner is redshirt freshman Earnest Cole who checks in at 5í10", 173.
UConnís defense is only surrendering 15.5 points per game, primarily because of the strength and experience of their front seven. It would appear on paper that VTís jumbo wide receivers would have a significant advantage against the vertically challenged defensive backfield of the Huskies, and I wouldnít be surprised to see VT offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring try to exploit that advantage when the going gets tough.
This could very well bury any aspirations the Huskies have of a monumental upset. On paper, this is a significant advantage for VT, and an early special teams play could light a fire under the Lane Stadium crowd.
UConnís kicker is R-FR Matt Nuzie, and he has almost kicked himself out of a job four games into the season. Nuzie is 3-8 on field goals, and he has missed two field goals of 34 yards or less against both BC and Buffalo. The other option is true freshman Greg Vicidomino. He could get a chance if Nuzie misses his first kick, but opening in the swirling winds in Lane with VTís vaunted special teams could make for a nervous moment if he does take the field.
The punter for the Huskies is returning starter Adam Coles. Coles averages 39.8 yards per punt, with a net of 33.6, which is below average. I donít have any particular reason for saying this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the VT Pride and Joy team will put some points on the board this week, either through a kick block or a DeAngelo Hall touchdown return.
The primary kick returner is SO wide receiver Jason Williams, and he has been very capable thus far, averaging 32.8 yards on four returns. The team kick return average is also good at 28.5 yards per attempt.
The punt return job has been returned to 5í8", 171 R-FR David Sanchez because SO Brandon Young was having trouble holding onto the football. Sanchez has been solid catching the ball, but he has an underwhelming 3.9 average per return on 16 attempts. The statistics suggest he isnít a threat to break one.
UConn is a well coached team on the rise that has some nice skill position talent and solid and experienced play in the trenches. Realistically, though, the Huskies need a lot of breaks to win this game, and they havenít shown a propensity to force turnovers (only 5 caused in 4 games). Additionally, it doesnít look like they have the special teams to change field position.
I expect UConn to come out and make a game of it, but in the end it is tough to see how the Huskies can slow down the VT offense. I anticipate UConn putting up some points, but it wonít be nearly enough to nab a victory in Lane over a VT team that wonít be taking them lightly.
VT 38, UConn 17
Will Stewart's Take: Lots of intangibles and hard-to-predicts here. How good is UConn, really? They have won 7 of their last 8, with a lot of those wins coming against suspect competition, but there's one common thread: they've been piling up the points. That tells you that the Huskies are at least one level above the UConn team that was spanked 52-10 in Blacksburg in 2001. I think even the most demanding of UConn fans would have to be fairly satisfied with their progress.
I like UConn's blend of experience and talent, and I think they'll meet or exceed last year's win total of 6. And I think they'll play a good game Saturday against VT. I don't think they'll come in and fall flat on their faces.
What I don't know is how ready VT will be to play. Noon games tend to be yawners -- the fans, trying to squeeze in more tailgate time, show up late, the players aren't quite into the groove of the day, and the intensity just isn't there. Plus, the Hokies are coming off an emotionally charged win.
I think UConn will come in and keep it close for a while, but I think in the end, a play or two will open this one up. I like Jeff's prediction that UConn will score 17 points, although I'm going with 14. I don't think the Hokies will score 38. I think they'll be a little sleepy and will spend a quarter or two getting it in gear.
I think this one will stay fairly close for the first half -- say, 14-14, or 14-7 VT at the half. Tech will pour it on in the third and then coast in the fourth quarter. For me, that adds up to Ö
Will Stewart's Prediction: VT 34, UConn 14
One thing to look for: If the Hokies come out strong and pound UConn from the get-go, this is a very good sign that they're building on last Thursday's win. In 1999, a 2-0 Hokie team that hadn't established an identity came out on a Thursday night and beat Clemson 31-11 to go to 3-0. From that point on, they looked like a championship team, whipping their next three opponents 151-27.
But I think the more likely scenario is the slow-starting one I talked about above, because it's a noon game, and
it's not a team that the Hokies generally get "up" for (the 1999 team, after beating Clemson, faced UVa in a 6
pm game, and that was easy for them to get "up" for).