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September 11, 2009
A Closer Look: Connecticut
North Carolina (1-0), currently ranked No. 19 in the national polls, heads into Saturday's noon kickoff on the road against a familiar foe in Connecticut (1-0).
Last fall the Huskies came to Chapel Hill and were on the receiving end of a 38-12 thrashing, but this time around Connecticut will have the advantage of a partisan crowd in Hartford's Rentschler Field, along with some confidence after winning their season opener last week.
"The challenge is dramatically different than a week ago," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "This is going to be a heck of a challenge. Every week from this moment forward it's going to be a lot more challenging every single week. Certainly Connecticut is a dramatically different football team than what we faced a week ago."
"I'm not really used to all the fans in their place, knowing it's not our fans going crazy," said sophomore linebacker Zach Brown. "It's their fans going crazy. We've got to get adjusted to that and handle the pressure of all of that."
For the Tar Heels, this will be their first chance to hit the road and take a trip as a team, and for some of the players, such as freshman A.J. Blue, the trip to Hartford was their first-ever flight on an airplane.
"First of all, I've never been on a plane before, so I don't know about that. I'll have the jitters," said Blue earlier in the week. "I felt like I got my feet wet the first game, so I'm ready to play against UConn, and I'm ready to help the team out a lot. I'll just stick the IPod (on the plane) on and just go with the flow, man---just go with the flow."
"Me and planes---I don't even like to fly---but hey, I'm going to fly with the team," said Brown.
Although naturally there's a certain level of excitement that comes with an out-of-state trip, Coach Davis and the players were quick to point out that the trip to Hartford is hardly a vacation.
"When we go on the road, these are business trips," Davis said. "This is not a trip to Disney World. We're not going to Six Flags and we're not going to see any sights. We're going to take care of business. We're going to win the game."
"The first road trip, everybody's excited. It's the first away game in a new stadium not in our home, but we're going to try to go up there and handle our business," said Brown. "We're going up there to take care of business, and hopefully just come back with the 'W'. We're supposed to have fun with the game, but it's still business."
Connecticut has been a power on the basketball court for the better part of two decades, but it wasn't until the 2000 that the Huskies program held Division I-A status on the gridiron.
Joining the Big East in 2004, the Huskies have appeared in three bowls over the past five seasons, winning two of them.
"(UConn head coach) Randy Edsall, in the 11 years that he's been there, to take that football program to a I-AA football program to a program that is always knocking at the door of winning the Big East Conference championship (and) going to bowls. He's doing a great job," said Davis.
Last week the Huskies scored in every quarter in claiming a 23-16 road victory over Ohio. The offense piled up 386 offensive yards and averaged 5.3 yards per play, while the UConn defense held Ohio to just 11 first downs and 61 net rushing yards.
On its way to an 8-5 season last fall, the Huskies held seven of its opponents to 17 or fewer points.
This season Connecticut returns many of those same players, including a solid trio of juniors at linebacker---Lawrence Wilson and Greg Lloyd, who combined for 17 tackles against Ohio and were first and second on the team last week in that department---and Scott Lutrus.
"They (UConn) were sixth in the nation last year in total defense, and one of those reasons is that they've got three terrific linebackers," said Coach Davis. "I mean, they are fast, athletic, very experienced. They make a lot of plays. They run sideline to sidelines, and they really fit plays well."
Lutrus, who plays on the strong side, suffered a shoulder 'stinger' in the fourth quarter against Ohio and is questionable for Saturday.
There's a good chance Lutrus will suit up and try to play against the Tar Heels, but 'stinger' injuries can be recurring and it could continue to bother him on Saturday.
Some of the other key players on Connecticut's defense includes senior defensive end Lindsey Witten, who had two sacks in the season opener, sophomore defensive tackle Tywon Martin, who had six tackles against the Bobcats, and senior safety Robert Vaughn, who recorded UConn's first interception of the season last Saturday.
"Talking offensively, last year we felt like structurally they (UConn) were one of the most sound defenses that we played against, and there's really, truly no drop-off this year," Davis added about the Huskies defense. "They've got six returning starters and they also have two additional players that started the last three games of last season, so you could almost make the case that they have eight returning starters."
"They play very good. They're very fundamentally sound. They're good tacklers. They don't give up a lot of big plays, and they make you earn everything that you get," he added.
While the Huskies will not have the luxury of leaning on standout Donald Brown this year---he's currently playing with the Indianapolis Colts---they will definitely be looking to run the ball against the Tar Heels.
Sophomore Jordan Todman and fifth-year senior Andre Dixon proved to be twin threats in UConn's season opener, combining for 257 net rushing yards, and there's little doubt that the Huskies will come out looking to establish itself up front once again this week.
"Last year they had Donald Brown, who was one of college football's better runners, but one of the things that jumps immediately off the film is their ability to hit home runs. They are very fast," said Davis.
"They (Todman and Dixon) immediately started to look like the running backs against Miami," Davis added. "They look against those guys. They can stick their foot in the ground. They can cut."
"They have two pretty good 'speed' running backs---No. 2 (Dixon) and No. 23 (Todman)---but No. 23 is faster," said Brown. "Yeah, we've watched some film. They're still solid."
The Huskies have a veteran quarterback in Zach Frazer, who originally committed to Notre Dame and then transferred to Connecticut.
Last week Frazer was 11-for-24 passing for 127 yards and two touchdowns, but he had three passes intercepted by Ohio.
Considering how well the Tar Heels did last season in forcing turnovers, and the fact that they forced Frazer into three interceptions in the game last fall in Kenan Stadium, this is one area that UNC will be looking to take advantage of on Saturday.
"They have an experienced quarterback that started against us last year," said Davis.
Up front, the Huskies have two junior and two senior starters, just like the Tar Heels.
While Connecticut didn't have a single receiver with more that two catches in the season opener, they do have some weapons in the passing game, including multi-year starter and senior Brad Kanuch---who had a 35-yard touchdown reception against Ohio---along with emerging freshman tight end Ryan Griffin.
CONNECTICUT SPECIAL TEAMS
Despite the fact that UConn out-played Carolina last season in terms of total yardage, first downs, and time of possession, they were overwhelmed last season largely due to the fact that they were dominated on special teams by the Tar Heels.
In all, UNC blocked three punts in last year's game, including one that was recovered for a touchdown.
During the offseason Connecticut took great pains to shore up its punt coverage, and Davis doesn't expect this year's game to be as easy for the Tar Heels to break through and get blocks.
"They've made some tweaks and adjustments in their special teams," said Davis. "I know that we were very, very fortunate last year in the ability to put some pressure on their punter. That really helped give us a comfortable cushion to score some points that you don't traditionally count on."
"They (UConn) have really, really worked hard on changing some of their protections and some of the things they do on special teams, which will really create a challenge for our football team," he added.
Along with the fact that they've improved in their kick coverages, the Huskies also have the veteran presence of kicker Dave Teggart and punter Desi Cullen, which should improve their chances of finding success in the kicking game on Saturday.
While the Tar Heels head into today's contest as the favorite, it will certainly be a much more difficult challenge than last week's cakewalk over The Citadel, which was a completely overmatched team.
While the Tar Heels should like its chances to go up to Hartford and come away with a victory and a 2-0 start to the season, the win won't come without a fight from a talented and well-coached team.
Having played in the Big East for several years the Huskies are used to stiff competition from the likes of West Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, and others.
These are all teams that have beaten UNC in recent years, so Connecticut is most certainly not a team to be taken lightly.
"This is a week we've got to dramatically get better," said Coach Davis.