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Has Missouri found some answers in the secondary? If not, UConn could do some damage

UConn actually has an interesting offense this year. Just imagine what the Huskies could do if they could run the ball.

Connecticut v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

When Randy Edsall was re-hired as UConn head coach in the offseason, I was relatively unimpressed. I gave the hire a C+, which is about as low a grade as I’ll usually give hires.

I mean, I get it. Your program was decent under Edsall — over his last four years, the Huskies averaged 8.3 wins with an average S&P+ ranking of 53rd — and has been mostly awful since. In the six years after he left for Maryland, you’ve averaged four wins and an S&P+ of 94. Ergo, bring back the guy who had your program better than it is.

But 53rd would have ranked about fifth in the AAC, and that was with the benefit of recruiting to a power conference. Those are the good old days? Isn’t this when you’re supposed to be looking for someone with grand visions of winning AAC titles? Plus, you’re in the AAC! Home of young up-and-comers! And you land on Edsall two days after you announce that you’re firing Bob Diaco?

By the time he was done making assistant hires, though, I was intrigued. Bringing in successful Villanova defensive coordinator Billy Crocker was a nice move, I thought, and he made a particularly interesting hire at offensive coordinator: former Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee. He took a pay cut to move from the Plains to Connecticut, in theory to burnish his résumé out from under the wing of Gus Malzahn.

I loved the Lashlee hire mainly because I love thought experiments. Can you take a high-octane, no-huddle offense, plant it in the middle of a far less fertile recruiting area (and in a conference that has plenty of no-huddle spread attacks, no less), and have it work out? And what changes might Lashlee either bring to the table or have to bring to the table to make it work?

The results so far have been intriguing. The Huskies are indeed playing with a higher tempo — UConn ranks 27th in my Adjusted Pace measure after ranking 110th last year — and have nearly doubled their scoring average from a ghastly 14.8 to a far more manageable 27.1. Their Off. S&P+ ranking has gone from 127th to 60th.

This isn’t a good offense yet, mind you. UConn has figured out how to pass the ball much better but can’t run it yet. But you don’t necessarily have to have a good offense to move the ball on Missouri. And Missouri’s pass defense will likely determine whether this is a steady, easy Tiger win or a dogfight. (That sentence shouldn’t fill you with the utmost confidence.)

Backfield

QB

  • Bryant Shirreffs (6’2, 210, Sr.) — 135-for-198 (68%), 1,952 yards, 13 TD, 4 INT, 18 sacks (8.6 yards per attempt); 46 carries, 250 yards (5.4)
  • David Pindell (6’0, 192, Jr.) — 19-for-28 (68%), 154 yards, 1 sack (5.1 yards per attempt); 6 carries, 33 yards (5.5)

RB

  • Kevin Mensah (5’8, 198, Fr.) — 46 carries, 210 yards (4.6), 1 TD; 6 targets, 5 catches, 41 yards (6.8)
  • Nate Hopkins (6’1, 212, RSFr.) — 75 carries, 289 yards (3.9), 7 TD; 2 targets, 2 catches, 11 yards (5.5)
  • Out: Arkeel Newsome (5’7, 190, Sr.) — 54 carries, 218 yards (4.0), 3 TD; 28 targets, 22 catches, 407 yards (14.5), 2 TD

You have to feel pretty good for Bryant Shirreffs. The NC State transfer walked in the door at UConn just in time for everything to fall apart around him. The Huskies ‘improved’ from 127th to 115th in Off. S&P+ in his first year as QB (he was 17-for-26 for 156 yards, three sacks, and 11 non-sack carries for 40 yards against Missouri), and combined with a strong defense, that was just enough to eke out a bowl bid.

In 2016, though, the defense fell apart and the offense reverted to previous form. Shirreffs took a lot of hits and oversaw a bunch of three-and-outs. Not the most enjoyable existence.

Lashlee’s hire was a lifeline. The senior has been steady and exciting, completing 68 percent of his passes with a better than 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. He takes far too many sacks, both because of a shuffled offensive line and the simple fact that he doesn’t throw the ball quickly enough sometimes.

Still, despite a total lack of support from the ground game, he’s been able to make some plays. UConn ranks just 98th in standard downs success rate but 31st in passing downs success rate.

One thing you have to keep in mind, though: UConn ain’t played nobody. The Huskies have played just one power conference team, losing by 20 to Virginia, and once you adjust for opponent, their offensive ratings plummet. They rank 77th in Passing S&P+, 121st in Standard Downs S&P+, and 90th in Passing Downs S&P+. They’re also 114th in Adj. Sack Rate. Still, that’s improvement. And Mizzou’s defense has as much or more to prove than the UConn offense.

It will be disappointing if the Huskies are allowed to run the ball very well. Not only does the UConn run game stink (126th in Rushing S&P+), but the Huskies are also without Arkeel Newsome. The veteran injured his sternum (ouuuuuch) and is expected to be out for a while.

That injury could actually hurt the passing game more than the run game. Newsome was averaging barely four yards per carry, but he was dynamite in the passing game — third on the team in targets but first in yards. It will be disappointing if Mizzou allows his freshman backups, Kevin Mensah and Nate Hopkins, to do much of anything.

Connecticut v Temple
Kevin Mensah
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Receiving Corps

WR

  • Quayvon Skanes (5’11, 175, RSFr.) — 34 targets, 22 catches, 219 yards (6.4), 1 TD
  • Aaron McLean (6’5, 210, Jr.) — 21 targets, 16 catches, 271 yards (12.9), 1 TD

WR

  • Hergy Mayala (6’2, 203, Jr.) — 34 targets, 19 catches, 342 yards (10.1), 5 TD
  • Mason Donaldson (6’2, 205, RSFr.) — 19 targets, 13 catches, 176 yards (9.3), 2 TD

WR

  • Keyion Dixon (6’3, 185, RSFr.) — 28 targets, 19 catches, 216 yards (7.7), 1 TD
  • Tyraiq Beals (6’0, 185, Jr.) — 24 targets, 21 catches, 212 yards (8.8)

WR

  • Kevin Mensah (5’8, 198, Fr.) — 6 targets, 5 catches, 41 yards (6.8)

TE

  • Alec Bloom (6’6, 253, Sr.) — 8 targets, 3 catches, 59 yards (7.4), 1 TD
  • Tommy Myers (6’5, 245, Sr.) — 3 targets, 2 catches, 26 yards (8.7)
  • Tyler Davis (6’4, 235, So.) — 11 targets, 8 catches, 117 yards (10.6)

The power in the UConn receiving corps has been the variety. Shirreffs has targeted six different guys between 19 and 34 times so far, seven if you include the three TEs above as a single guy (Alylmy Blavers); wherever there’s a decent matchup, that’s where he’s going with the ball. And while Missouri’s secondary is coming off of easily its best performance of the year, odds are decent that Shirreffs will find some happy matchups at times.

Of course, part of that variety stems from the fact that Hergy Mayala missed most of three games. Mayala was injured against ECU and missed the SMU and Memphis games. UConn is 0-3 without him and 3-1 with him, and if he’d played all six games, he’d be close to 700 receiving yards already. In recent wins over Temple and Tulsa, he had eight catches for 159 yards and two scores.

Walk-on Mason Donaldson did step up in Mayala’s absence. In those three games, he caught 13 passes for 176 yards and did so with a higher catch rate than Mayala’s. Mayala, Donaldson, and Tyraiq Beals give UConn some interesting downfield options, while return man Quayvon Skanes serves as more of a bouncy possession guy.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Connecticut
Hergy Mayala
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

LT

  • Matt Peart (6’7, 300, So.) — 7 starts in 2017, 29 career starts
  • Steve Hashemi (6’6, 293, Sr.)

LG

  • Trey Rutherford (6’5, 312, Sr.) — 7 starts in 2017, 21 career starts
  • Nino Leone (6’6, 316, RSFr.)

C

  • Brendan Vechery (6’6, 310, Sr.) — 3 starts in 2017, 20 career starts
  • Daniel Oak (6’3, 285, Jr.) — 1 start in 2017, 1 career start

RG

  • Cam DeGeorge (6’6, 286, RSFr.) — 7 starts in 2017, 7 career starts
  • Kyle Schafenacker (6’3, 284, Sr.)

RT

  • Ryan Van Demark (6’7, 265, Fr.) — 4 starts in 2017, 4 career starts
  • Thomas Hopkins (6’6, 300, Sr.) — 3 starts in 2017, 21 career starts

Are you still a little shaken by that “Missouri’s pass defense will likely determine success” sentence above? I understand. It’s a terrifying thought. Take heart in this: Missouri’s defensive front should be able to completely control UConn’s offensive line.

The Tigers held Idaho backs to 3.4 yards per carry last week, 2.5 after the very first carry of the game. Not only does Idaho rank ahead of UConn (just barely) in Rushing S&P+, but the Huskies are, again, also without Newsome. They’re also without two-year starting center Ryan Crozier, who tore his ACL in September.

(Honestly, Edsall and company have done a hell of a job getting to 3-4 despite getting bitten hard by the injury bug.)

It would be pretty disappointing if Terry Beckner Jr., A.J. Logan, and company didn’t dominate this matchup on the interior. I’m not completely sure how much success the pass rush will have — Shirreffs is quite sackable but is just elusive enough to perhaps escape danger against Mizzou’s hit-or-miss pass rush. But the first step toward stopping the pass is putting UConn in awkward downs and distances. Mizzou should be able to do that.


S&P+ says this game will be a little bit closer than the spread says, something in the neighborhood of a 38-31 win. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Mizzou scores under 40, but there’s certainly a chance that UConn keeps up for quite a while on the scoreboard. It will all depend on the pass defense.

Is what we saw last week — a resurgent pass rush and an organized secondary that keeps plays in front of it — the new normal? There were just enough Mizzou personnel changes (increased roles for freshman nickel Josh Bledsoe, redshirt freshman Tre Williams, and junior nickel Cam Hilton, plus the return of safety Anthony Sherrils from injury) to make you optimistic. But we have to see it again. If Missouri’s secondary can control UConn’s receiving corps for the most part, the home team doesn’t have much of a chance. But that’s not an “if” that is guaranteed to have a happy resolution.