Photo courtesy of Utah State Athletics
LOGAN – Year two of the Blake Anderson era begins on Saturday with Utah State football hosting the UConn Huskies at home. It’s a game preceded by much anticipation, perhaps not so much for this particular matchup, but more so what it means — the beginning of USU’s title defense. This is the year that could maybe garner some respect for a program that most don’t yet believe can put together more than one good season every five or so years (not necessarily an unfounded belief).
- Kickoff: 2 p.m. MT
- Location: Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium
- TV Broadcast: FS1
- Aggie GameDay Coverage on KVNU (102.1 FM/610 AM & KVNU mobile app): 12:30 p.m. MT
- KVNU Aggie Call (102.1 FM/610 AM & KVNU mobile app): Immediately after game ends
New head coach for struggling UConn program
The first thing to know about the Huskies’ program at the moment is that in their last three seasons (small note that they didn’t play in 2020), they’ve compiled a 4-32 record. Losing is just in the nature of UConn at the moment.
UConn hired Jim Mora Jr. to change that nature.
Mora coached 25 seasons in the NFL from 1984-2009, most of those as an assistant or coordinator but also three years as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons (2004-05). His college experience consists of being head coach at UCLA from 2012-17. He led the Bruins on a great four year run from ’12-’15, going 37-16 in that span, being ranked at some point in all four of those seasons (peaking inside the top 10 in both 2013 and 2014) and making the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2012. Mora lost his job (fired on his 56th birthday) after two losing seasons in 2016 and 2017 and and didn’t hold any NCAA head coaching position until being hired by UConn in November.
“It’s not every day that you face a guy that’s got that track record, to coach in the NFL like he has and at the Power Five level. It speaks for itself,” Anderson said of Mora. “Tremendous amount of respect for his career and what he’s been able to do.”
Year one of Mora at UConn will probably still be a struggle, at least if preseason metrics are to be believed. Phil Steele projects the Huskies as 129th (of 131) in point differential and 127th in yards per game differential. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Bill Connelly and his SP+ projections slate UConn at 128.
The overwhelming theme from head coach Blake Anderson on his team’s first opponent is how little he knows about them, thanks in large part to Mora being a first-year head coach at the school.
“UConn presents some problems because we don’t know what to expect,” Anderson said. “Been asked several times, ‘How do you prepare for a team, new head coach, new coordinators, really no film to go off of?’ And that is a real problem.”
The solution utilized in practice has been the old cliché of “controlling what you can control.” Anderson stressed going out and just playing “clean football” with “great effort” and avoid key mistakes like penalties and turnovers.
After that, it’s just a matter of adjusting in real time to what UConn shows itself to be.
“We’ll have to rally to what they are,” Anderson said. “We’ll find out early in the game just how they’re going to play — defensively, just what to expect, offensively what it’s going to look like. We’re going to have to do a great job of adjusting and I think our kids are aware of that. And hopefully we can do that at a level and at a pace that gives us a chance to be competitive.”
UConn not naming starter at QB
One of the unknowns Anderson is dealing with is who the starting quarterback will be. Mora has refused to clarify publicly who will be starting under center for the Huskies, leaving the public to figure out which of Ta’Quan Roberson, Zion Turner and Tyler Phommachanh will be under center when UConn’s offense first lines up.
The favorite among the aforementioned trio is Roberson, a former four-star recruit and transfer from Penn State. But Turner reportedly impressed in camp this season and, despite being a true freshman, could be a legitimate candidate to start. Phommachanh’s claim to the QB throne is the fact he started three games last year before a knee injury prematurely ended his season. That injury is reportedly still bothering Phommachanh and it’s unlikely he starts against the Aggies.
The gamesmanship over the Huskies not naming a starter may matter to the outside observer, Anderson hasn’t worried about predicting who will be UConn’s signal-caller.
“Not sure that it’s going to matter which one of the quarterbacks plays,” Anderson said. “It may sound cliché, but we’ve just got to line up and play sound defense, tackle well, and be ready for a little bit of everything.”
Huskies’ defense not likely to be improved from last year
UConn’s offense looks primed to be much better than last year (and there’s not anywhere it can really go but up after scoring a second-worst-in-NCAA 15.6 points per game in 2021) but the defense does not look to be in a position to improve. The defensive front, already one of the worst considering the Huskies’ awful run defense, lost its best two players: Travis Jones (who got drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft earlier this year) and Lawl Uguak (transferred to TCU).
Where the Huskies could be strong is at linebacker where they return their best guy on that side of the ball (maybe aside from Jones), Jackson Mitchell. Mora had high praise for his linebacker who returns as the leading tackler on the team from last year (114 total tackles), considering the NFL background Mora has.
“I’ve been around some of the great linebackers that have ever played the game – and that’s not an overstatement,” Mora said. “I can’t compare Jackson to those guys in terms of being players because I haven’t been on the sidelines yet as a head coach when he’s playing a game. But in terms of the way a guy prepares and the level of professionalism that he brings to the game, he’s like those great ones.”
A warm-up game for the Aggies (to Mora’s chagrin)
Utah State opened as 29.5-point favorites to win this game, with the line falling to just -27 as game week hits. Mora himself came to the realization that, not only is he not getting a warmup game, his team is the warmup game for the Aggies as reported in the Hartford Courant.
“I’ve never been a 27-point underdog in my life,” Mora said, “and I’m not real happy about it.”
Though Mora won’t be happy to hear his team talked about like they’re a speed-bump, in an ideal world that’s exactly what they’ll be to the Aggies. This game should be a chance for USU to work its new offensive players (particularly wide receivers) into a rhythm and give its defense a chance to hit some players that don’t wear the Fighting White. And if Roberson starts, as is expected, it’ll be a good chance for USU to test itself against an athletic quarterback, an area of defense they struggled with last year.
Huskies a pest to teams last year
Of course, these heavy-favorite games always come with a fateful warning and there’s some credence that must be lent to those warnings when it comes to UConn. Last year the Huskies nearly took down two teams seemingly much better than them. UConn lost by just two points to both Vanderbilt (30-28) and Wyoming (24-22). Both came down to the last second with Vanderbilt hitting a walk-off field goal and UConn missing a two-point conversion that would have forced overtime against the Cowboys.
“Trap Game” may be a bit strong for this game, but it’s worth noting how UConn has made things difficult for superior opponents in the past.