BYU vs. UConn: Keys to Watch
BYU kicks off the 2014 season in East Hartford, Conn. Friday night against the UConn Huskies.
Expectations are high for Bronco Mendenhall’s program as the Cougars begin year two of their fast-break offense under the direction of dark horse Heisman candidate Taysom Hill.
With a schedule that isn’t expected to be as difficult as last season, and with the players having a lot more comfort, confidence and familiarity with the offense, BYU should be able to get back to posting double-digit victories.
The first order of business is to take care of a Huskies team that dropped its first nine games in 2013 before rallying for three straight wins over Temple, Rutgers and Memphis to finish 3-9.
UConn has a new coaching staff, led by head coach Bob Diaco, who is tying to re-establish a winning attitude in Storrs. The Huskies appeared in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl but have gone just 13-23 since. Diaco is well acquainted with BYU, having served as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. His defenses held the BYU offense to 14 and 13 points respectively the past two years in South Bend.
Here are a three key items for BYU fans to keep an eye on Friday night:
Finishing the Job on Offense
The primary key to watch for BYU on Friday, and throughout the 2014 season, is offensive execution–particularly when it comes to red zone scoring and third-down conversions.
Last year the Cougars scored touchdowns just 48 percent of the time when they penetrated inside their opponent’s 20-yard line. Only 10 other teams in the FBS experienced more futility in the red zone than did BYU. That’s an unusual stat for a team that finished No. 10 in the country in rushing, averaging 267 yards per game.
The go-fast, go-hard approach often resulted in quick three-and-outs for the Cougars in year one of implementing their current offensive attack. Speeding up the tempo is great, but it can result in a whole lot of punting if execution is lacking.
Once upon a time, during offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s first stint as offensive coordinator, BYU was consistently among the best programs in the country in converting third-down opportunities. Last season his offense fell off dramatically in that important stat, finishing 85th among FBS programs.
There were a number of reasons for the drop off: a new offensive scheme, poor play on the offensive line, inconsistency from the quarterback in the passing game, a lack of imagination in regards to play calling, difficulty in getting separation by the wide receivers and number of untimely penalties. All of which combined to keep the offense from really finding its groove on a consistent basis.
In theory, most, if not all of those issues from 2013, should see improvement in 2014. There is more talent and experience on the offensive line, Hill has worked specifically for months to improve his accuracy and decision making, and there is much more speed incorporated into the corps of wide receivers–all factors that should give Anae more options and flexibility in calling plays in the second year of implementation of his attack.
After laying an egg to start the season against a bad Virginia team last year, there is great deal of motivation for the offense to get off to a better start against a team that the Cougars are favored to defeat by more than two touchdowns.
The favorable news for a BYU offense that is seeking to improve its passing game is that UConn was miserable getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year, finishing 118th in the country in sacks. That’s a number that may not improve considering that the Huskies lose five players from their starting front seven. UConn also finished in the middle of pack nationally in third-down conversions and were No. 77 in the country in red zone defense.
So, there shouldn’t be any excuse for the BYU offense come Friday. If the Cougars consistently execute, this game could be over before the end of the third quarter.
Enough Strength up the Middle?
BYU is replacing nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, strong safety Daniel Sorensen, and will sport two new starters at inside linebacker. Eathyn, Daniel and mike linebacker Uani Unga came up huge for the Cougars last season, and all three are currently in the hunt to make NFL rosters.
That’s a major loss of talent right down the center of the Cougar defense.
The nose tackle spot looks like will be further weakened Friday night by the likely suspension of projected starter Marques Johnson. Travis Tuiloma is listed as the starter in the middle of BYU’s three-man front with former walk-on Logan Taele tabbed as his back up. Both players’ listed weights are significantly under 300 pounds.
Manoa Pikula and Zac Stout have earned the starting inside linebacker spots, and although both have playing experience, neither has started a game. Stout returns to the team after being dismissed from school in late 2012. Meanwhile, Pikula missed a significant portion of fall camp while getting some academic issues squared away.
Talented, but relatively inexperienced, players like Jherremyah Leuta-Douyere, Austin Heder and Harvey Langi should see action in the rotation at the inside backer spots as well.
It appears that the starting KAT, or strong safety position, will be manned by Dallin Leavitt, who saw significant action at multiple positions in the secondary as a true freshman last season.
It was expected that Craig Bills would slide over into the starting role at the KAT, but the most recent depth chart lists Craig as the starter at free safety, where he started 12 games last season. Assuming Leavitt is the starting KAT, he has some huge shoes to fill and will be tasked with responsibilities all over the field, including providing run support.
The UConn offensive line has been a work in progress during fall camp and it will be interesting to see what kind of daylight they can create for their running backs against BYU’s revamped interior defense. The Huskies have a couple of physical specimens in the starting backfield in Max DeLorenzo and Jazzmar Clax. Both are listed at 5-foot-11, with DeLorenso checking in at 210 pounds and Clax tipping the scales a 241 pounds.
If UConn can find success running the ball straight up the gut, it will change the complexion of the game.
Introducing BYU’s 6-foot-8 Linebacker
All eyes will be on Bronson Kaufusi as he moves from defensive end to outside linebacker. Expect Bronco Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell to move Bronson around quite a bit, much as they did with Kyle Van Noy the past few years.
He’ll no doubt see time as a stand up rush end, but it will be interesting to see how he plays in space. He should be able to make life difficult for UConn quarterback Casey Cochran, who would be wise to look in the other direction rather than try to throw over the top of the former Cougar power forward.
Look for the Huskies to try different offensive schemes and alignments to try to force Kaufusi to cover running backs and slot receivers in out in space. This could be a very intriguing chess match to watch and it will be the first opportunity for Cougars fans to get their first taste of this experiment.
What: BYU vs. UConn (First ever meeting)
Where: Rentschler Field (East Hartford, Conn.)
When: 7:00 pm EST