There isn’t much expectation for the Huskies tonight when they take on No. 22 UCF at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando. The line indicates what the public thinks, anywhere between 42-to-45-point underdogs depending on where you look. But for the players inside the locker room that have worked hard and prepped to ensure what occurred in Bloomington just one week ago doesn’t happen again this season, they would be selling themselves short if they didn’t have a belief that they could come down and at least compete with the Knights.
Yes, they understand the challenge. Yes, they know the talent on the opposite side of the field. Head coach Randy Edsall and defensive captain Tyler Coyle both mentioned it earlier this week.
“This is the biggest game we are going to play all year,” Coyle said on Tuesday. “We have to go in with a different type of mindset and mentality.”
In the end, it’s just football and on any given night, one group, even if less talented or less athletic can show more grit, more leadership and more togetherness, which can overcome any talent deficit they may deal with on the field. That is what coaches and players alike call culture.
So what do the Huskies need to do to keep today’s game close and insert doubt into the minds of a UCF team that is coming off of their first regular season loss in 25-games, a streak dating way back to the 2016 season?
First and foremost, they need to have a strong start, instill belief in the minds of a team that is still quite young, but growing in experience each and every game. Whether that’s a three-and-out defensively, a strong opening drive offensively where the unit finishes with a touchdown and doesn’t settle for a field goal, that is of utmost importance, particularly against what is expected to be a rowdy and sold-out crowd tonight at what’s become known as ‘The Bounce House.’
Next? Turnovers and creating negative plays. In last week’s loss to Pitt, UCF committed two turnovers, surrendered six sacks and gave up a season-high 12-tackles-for-loss. If UConn can get them off schedule and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos can draw up some confusing blitz packages against an inexperienced true freshman quarterback who is still learning to play at this level, that would go a long way to causing some havoc.
The Huskies on the other hand, who are averaging 5-TFL’s per game, will be going against one of the nation’s leaders in that same category, as the Knights defense is 4th in the country at 9.8 per game. Being able to run the ball and not lose yards is going to be critical for the UConn offense to not only stay on schedule, but take pressure off of true freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis.
Third is time of possession. In the 35-34 loss at Heinz Field, UCF lost the time of possession battle by 11-minutes (35-24-and-change). Whether it’s through the air or even putting together some semblance of a rushing attack, consistently moving the chains, even if the drive doesn’t finish with points, will help keep a highly touted UCF offense off the field, as well as help flip field position and put the UConn defense in a position to have success.
Finally, is true freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis; what player do the Huskies get tonight? The Zergiotis who was impressive in his debut at The Rent against Illinois, or the Zergiotis who looked uncomfortable, flustered and rushed in Bloomington? The Huskies’ biggest asset offensively has proven to be their receiving corps and we’ll really get a sense on where that group stands as UCF boasts two of the stronger defensive backs in the AAC in Aaron Robinson and Nevelle Clark.
While it would take a near perfect game from UConn in all three phases, the opportunity in front of the Huskies is too big to pass up without a fight. Whether they take advantage of it is a different story, but if they do, they would be able to finally kiss all of those naysayers goodbye.