September 9, 2011

Previewing UConn at Vanderbilt

Connecticut Huskies (1-0) at Vanderbilt Commodores (1-0)

When: Saturday, 6:35 p.m. CST

Where: Vanderbilt Stadium (39,790)

TV: CSS in the Nashville area and various markets in the Southeast and Midwest, SNY in the Northeast

Radio: Nashville: 97.1 FM; XM: 201

Game day weather forecast: High of 80, low of 60

Rankings: Neither team is ranked

The line: Vanderbilt by 2 (over-under of 44)

Sagarin prediction: Connecticut by 3

Series record: Each team has won once, with the Huskies winning 40-21 in Connecticut last season.

About Connecticut

It's been a crazy last year for the Huskies. Only a Divison I (now known as the FCS) team since 2002, UConn made it to the Fiesta Bowl by winning the Big East, where it took a gut-punch from Oklahoma in a 48-20 defeat.

But the biggest blow was right around the corner. Coach Randy Edsall left to become the head coach at Maryland not even 48 hours later after a more-than-respectable 74-70 record in 12 years.

His replacement, former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, is now the school's 28th head coach. The hire wasn't necessarily popular. Pasqualoni, now 62, doesn't exactly fit the popular profile of "up-and-coming head coach," but it's hard to argue with the 107 wins he had at Syracuse in 14 years, especially considering the Orange's 22-50 mark since he was fired in 2004.

He didn't exactly walk into a rebuilding job, either. The Huskies are a bit down on offense after losing superstar running back Jordan Todman to the NFL, but the foundation for a good defense is intact, with nine returning starters on that side of the ball.

Last week, Connecticut overwhelmed FBS foe Fordam with a 35-3 pounding, allowing only 169 yards that was so dominant at times that the Rams punted once on third down.

Pasqualoni's base alignment is a 4-3, but he hinted before the season that the Huskies may switch to a 3-4 at times.

UConn has a deep and experienced line led by tackles Kendall Reyes (who's on the watch lists for three national awards) and Twyon Martin, a pair of seniors who've started 60 games coming into this season.

Connecticut lost two starting linebackers, but gets back hard-hitting Sio Moore, who had 110 tackles (11.5 for loss) a season ago.

The secondary may be as strong as the line, because corners Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz are also back. Wreh-Wilson returned two interceptions for scores last season, and Gratz led the Huskies with nine pass break-ups last season.

Offense is more of a concern. Last year's team averaged just 326 yards a game, and Pasqualoni can't seem to decide between three quarterbacks, none of whom had taken a snap in college until last season.

"We understand that the reason they're doing it is that they feel like all three of them bring something to the table," VU coach James Franklin said on Wednesday.

The three are freshman Michael Nebrich and Scott McCummings and junior walk-on Johnny McEntee.


whose feats of accuracy on YouTube have to be seen to be believed
, started last week and hit on eight of 12 tosses for 113 yards. He's listed as the backup for Saturday.

Nebrich had a brilliant senior season at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax Station, Virginia, in 2010. He combined for 4,967 total yards and 59 touchdowns, but is listed at the No. 3 behind McCummings, who ran seven times and threw just once vs. Fordham.

The situation at tailback is cloudy, too. The depth chart lists the starter as either D.J. Shoemate, a Southern Cal transfer who played sparingly last season, or diminutive freshman Lyle McCombs, who ran 24 times for 141 yards against Fordham.

Receiver may be the team's weak link, especially when UConn's best wideout from a year ago (Michael Smith) was ruled academically ineligible. But tight end Ryan Griffin stepped up with three catches for 97 yards and a score next week.

Franklin praised UConn's line as a perpetually strong one on Monday, but the Huskies lost three two-year starters and a three-year starter from last year and will also be adjusting to a new blocking scheme. However, left tackle Mike Ryan and center Moe Petrus are all-Big East caliber players.

Connecticut has been very strong in returning kicks, and Nick Williams, who led the NCAA with a 35.3-yard average on kickoffs (with two scores) returns to handle that, as well as punt returns.

How Vanderbilt matches up

If you're looking for a lot of answers from last week's rout of Elon, I suggest you don't. VU has routinely pounded teams of the Phoenix's caliber one week, only to see no translation to the next against a better opponent.

But notice I didn't say, "any." I thought Larry Smith's performance was a step in the right direction, as was what was mostly a mistake-free game. Certainly, the 'Dores appear to be a more competent offense just in the absence of the confusion and mistakes that are a constant thorn in their side a season ago.

There are also concerns on the other side; VU's defense failed to dominate, and the 'Dores really put the hammer down after they'd worn Elon down with their depth. That's something that won't happen against Connecticut.

I think the keys this week come in the trenches. Vandy failed to establish ground dominance against Elon's undersized line, and the task gets markedly tougher this week. The 'Dores struggled to sustain make blocks at times, sometimes stumbling or whiffing them altogether, and if that's not fixed, it could be a long day.

But, the return of running back Warren Norman should also help immensely. Norman has proven time and time again that he needs just a crack to make a huge play, and the addition of Casey Hayward in a part-time role on the offense should help.

But, Smith is also going to need more help from his receivers, who dropped five balls a week ago. Jordan Matthews, in particular, has to become the big-play guy he was in August rather than the guy who failed to get open a lot and also dropped a pair of passes against Elon.

On the other side of things, it's doubtful that the Huskies will press Vandy downfield. They don't have a receiver the caliber of Elon stud Aaron Mellette, so the bigger concern is whether the "Dores can stop chain-moving plays in the form of short passes or scrambles.

And, of course, there's the running game. The Huskies methodically pounded away at VU for 196 yards on 45 carries a year ago, and you'd expect that Pasqualoni will try to do the same this year.

Player to watch

Jesse selected Colt Nichter as the player to watch this week, and I'm going to select him again, along with Rob Lohr and backup T.J. Greenstone, since the three are really 1A, 1B, and 1C in VU's defensive tackle rotation.

All three have made plays at various points in their career, but what they've failed to do is give VU a consistent answer to teams that want to pound the balls between the tackles. How well they do in that area could determine the winner of this one, especially if Connecticut holds a late lead and tries to hold on.


Vanderbilt came away relatively healthy from last week, and didn't release an injury report for this game. However, you can surmise from his absence on the depth chart that offensive lineman Logan Stewart is probably out for this game just as he was a week ago.

Connecticut will be without defensive end Jesse Joseph an All-Big East player from a year ago, but we don't know of any other significant injuries for the Huskies at this time.

Final analysis and prediction

Las Vegas started with Connecticut as a slight favorite before shifting to VU's corner, and that's consistent with how I've gone over this game in my head all week. It would have been more helpful had either team played a more legitimate opponent a week ago, so you have to go a lot on what each team has shown in the past.

I think VU will make big strides under Franklin this year, and I wouldn't be shocked if it won this game. Connecticut seems to edge along the line of scrimmage, but the fact that VU is favored tells you how much of a concern the offensive skill positions are for the Huskies.

But historically, where VU gets killed is on the line. I don't think the Huskies are going do a lot of fancy stuff outside of showing different looks at quarterback, but generally speaking, a team that can line up and pound away at the Commodores between the tackles, mixed with a dose of mobile quarterbacks, has been good-enough to beat VU. My gut says that UConn escapes Nashville with a narrow victory.

Chris's prediction (1-0, 1-0 vs. the spread): Connecticut 24, Vanderbilt 20

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