Virginia Football Game Preview: Connecticut

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The Virginia football team plays at Connecticut this week.
Kurt Benkert and the Hoos seek their first win in a road game at Connecticut. ~ Kris Wright

For the second time this season, the Virginia football team can look across the field at the opponents and see some familiar faces.

That didn’t go so well in the opener against Richmond when a handful of former UVA players and assistants led the Spiders to a 37-20 win. How will things turn out this week in Connecticut? Huskies head coach Bob Diaco, in his third season at UConn, held a spot on Al Groh’s staff at Virginia from 2006-2008. Connecticut receivers coach and special teams coordinator Wayne Lineburg overlapped on that same staff as an assistant from 2007-2009; he also graduated from UVA in 1996 after working as a backup quarterback in the program.

Finally, co-defensive coordinators Anthony Poindexter and Vincent Brown also worked with Groh at Virginia. Poindexter worked in various jobs over six years in the program. Brown was a graduate assistant in 2007 and returned to work on Mike London’s staff as well. Poindexter, of course, is also a legendary player for the Hoos after an All-American career at safety. Cavalier offensive tackle Eric Smith and safety Quin Blanding remembered being recruited by Brown and Poindexter, respectively and said matching up against them should be fun this week.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s new coaching staff has some familiarity with the Huskies for an entirely different reason. The coaches led BYU to two wins against UConn in 2014 and 2015 by scores of 35-10 and 30-13. The Cavaliers, of course, aren’t on the same successful footing as the Cougars so the trip could be a challenge for a team looking for its first win of the season and the program’s first road win since 2012.

Here’s some information on the game.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • Virginia has faced Connecticut twice before and the series is tied 1-1. The Huskies won the last meeting in 2008.
  • UVA is 17-34 all-time against teams currently in the American Athletic Conference. The majority of those games came against Navy – the Hoos are 11-27 all-time in that series, but the programs haven’t played since 1994.
  • When Saturday’s game kicks off, the Cavaliers will have traveled more than 6,000 miles in an eight-day span since they made a trip cross-country to Oregon last Saturday. This is the first time since 2003 that Virginia has played back-to-back non-conference road games. This is the first time since 2007 that UVA is playing two non-conference road games in the same season.
  • This is only Virginia’s second game in Connecticut in the last 72 years (2008 and 2016). The last time UVA played someone other than UConn in the state? Yale in 1944.
  • Bronco Mendenhall is one win shy of 100 for his head coaching career.

Husky Facts

  • Connecticut coach Bob Diaco’s first career game as a head coach came against Bronco Mendenhall at BYU in 2014. The Cougars won 35-10.
  • UConn co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter was named the 1998 ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Virginia where he was a two-time All-American. He finished his career with 342 tackles, 12 interceptions, and 6 fumble recoveries. UVA retired his jersey in 2009.
  • The Huskies play two straight non-conference home games against ACC when Virginia and Syracuse visit in consecutive weeks. They also travel to Boston College on Nov. 19.
  • Connecticut is 18-37 against current members of the ACC.
  • Saturday is Band Day at UConn with more than 900 high school musicians performing at halftime.

3 Hoos To Watch

Running back Albert Reid. The senior has two 100-yard rushing games in his last three outings. He ended last season with 103 yards against Virginia Tech and added a career-high 126-yard night at Oregon last week. Reid has already gotten 21 carries in 2016 for 154 yards – he had just 66 carries in 11 games last season and gained 360 yards. The increase in chances helped boost a run game that had struggled in week one. If the Hoos continue to go with Reid as the heavy workload back, will he continue to produce?

Left guard Michael Mooney. After a rough day for the guard position against Richmond, Virginia turned to the experience of Mooney to help address the issue. It was the 15th start of Mooney’s career after he started 14 games at left tackle in 2014 and 2015. The move seemed to boost the running game. He missed the rest of the season after an injury in the fifth game last season so he may be on a limited play count, but can the Hoos get the most out of his experience and continue to address a need at the same time?

Linebacker Zach Bradshaw. The senior currently sits third on the team with 15 tackles and is tied for the team lead with 2 tackles for loss (TFL). That has upped Bradshaw’s career total to 85 tackles and he’s on pace to easily set a new career high for season TFL (3.5 in 2015). He could be a key component of this week’s matchup because UConn likes to run the football and can use running backs, fullbacks, and tight ends in the underneath passing game to challenge someone like Bradshaw in crossing coverage.

3 Huskies To Watch

Receiver Noel Thomas. The senior has been a frequent target over the first two weeks and ranks third in the NCAA with 10.0 receptions per game. He ranks 35th nationally with 93.0 receiving yards per game. He has 1 touchdown catch so far this season. For his career, Thomas has posted 103 receptions, 1,242 yards, and 8 touchdowns in the passing game.

Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. The team co-captain is coming off a red-hot outing against Navy – he set the school record for single-game completion percentage by connecting on 23 of 26 attempts (88.4%). He started in 2015 as well when he had five games with more than 200 yards passing and only 8 interceptions in 279 pass attempts. He also rushed for 503 yards, which is third all-time in a single season at UConn for rushing yards by a quarterback. For his career, Shirreffs has tallied 2,479 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions plus 630 rushing yards with 3 touchdowns.

Defensive back Jamar Summers. The junior made three preseason watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. He finished third nationally in interceptions per game last season with 8 on the year; that included INTs in UConn’s final three wins of 2015 and two against East Carolina, who was then coached by current UVA associate head coach Ruffin McNeill. Summers returned a fumble 86 yards for a touchdown last week against Navy, making him just the fourth player in program history to have both an interception and a fumble return for touchdown in his career. He has 64 career tackles.

3 Things To Watch

Red zone success. Virginia has scored touchdowns on 6 of 7 red zone trips this season. That’s 85.71% and good enough to tie for 13th nationally through two weeks. It’s on par with offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s past two seasons at BYU too where the Cougars ranked 14th at 71.19% (42 TDs in 59 trips) and 6th in 2015 at 73.58% (39 TDs in 53 trips). Connecticut, meanwhile, has scored touchdown on 50% of its 6 red zone trips so far this season, which is tied for 94th nationally. The Huskies struggled there in 2014 and 2015 too. In 2014, they were 122nd at 41.67% (10 TDs in 24 trips). In 2015, they were 115th at 48.48% (16 TDs in 33 trips). If either team produces a big advantage in touchdowns in the red zone this week, it might lead to a win.

Safety play. UConn coach Bob Diaco called Obi Melifonwu “the best safety in America” and believes he has NFL talent. Melifonwu had 88 tackles and 2 INTs in 2015 and has posted 14 tackles in two games thus far in 2016. With Virginia trying to challenge teams in the air with Kurt Benkert at QB, Melifonwu will be a key player for UConn this week. On the flipside, Virginia safety Quin Blanding has NFL aspirations as well after rolling up 254 tackles so far in his career – he has 16 tackles so far this season. Blanding and fellow safety Kelvin Rainey, however, have struggled a bit in adjusting to Bronco Mendenhall’s new defense at UVA, which obviously has stumbled out of the gate allowing 40.5 points and 578 yards per game through two weeks of action. If the safeties continue to have issues, it may cause hiccups throughout the defense.

The best running attack wins? In three of these team’s four games this season, the running backs haven’t produced much for the offense. UConn’s Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome have combined for 151 yards on 49 carries – that’s 75.5 yards per game and 3.08 yards per carry. Run defense has been an issue so far for UVA so if the defense can bottle up those backs too, it could help the defense have a better showing this week. Virginia, meanwhile, struggled against Richmond with just 35 yards from its running backs. The Cavaliers, however, got on track at Oregon with 220 rushing yards from the backs – Albert Reid led the way there with 126 yards and 1 touchdown. Since the Huskies want to control the time of possession and rely on defense, a repeat showing from the Hoo running backs this week could be a big boost toward hopes of victory.

One last note in this vein: considering UVA’s early defensive troubles with misdirection and play action plus Bryant Shirreffs’ ability to run the football, it will be important for the Cavaliers to be on top of their assignments this week. Overpursuit or late run fills on read option plays hurt the Hoos a little bit at Oregon. UConn will probably build some of those in this week as a result. Defense is critical this week against those plays plus any backside containment on play-action run-pass option bootlegs.

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