In a battle of two of the Big East's best defenses the Connecticut Huskies will try to pull an upset over the newly ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights at HighPoint Solutions Stadium.
Connecticut has not really been able to pick up any momentum thus far as the Huskies have alternated wins and losses through their first five games. UConn took down Buffalo 24-17 last weekend and this matchup with Rutgers will be the first in Big East Play for Paul Pasqualoni and company. Last season the Huskies went 3-4 in conference play, including a 40-22 win at home over Rutgers.
Head coach Kyle Flood came in to replace Greg Schiano and has seemingly not missed a beat. Flood has led his team to four straight wins, three of which came on the road, putting the team back into the national rankings. Rutgers is currently No. 22, making this the first Rutgers team to be ranked since 2009 and the highest ranked squad since 2007. Rutgers' impressive start also includes a win against Big East competition, with the Scarlet Knights downing South Florida 23-13 in Tampa.
Rutgers has history on its side in this game with a 21-10 record all-time against Connecticut even with the loss last season. The series has been hotly contested recently with the teams splitting the last 10 games and seven of those contests being decided by a touchdown or less.
"Last year's game has no bearing on this year's game," Flood said. "We are just trying to be 1-0 this week."
On offense Connecticut is a team that tries to control the line scrimmage and run the ball effectively. That strategy has led to a meager total offense (323.8 ypg) which ranks second to last in the conference this season and the worst scoring offense (23.2 ppg).
Lyle McCombs looks to have found his form from last season when he finished second in the conference in rushing. McCombs is currently third in the conference in rushing yards (452) and has also been able to find the end zone effectively with four scores. McCombs is coming off a his third straight game with at least 90 yards rushing. It is vital that Connecticut keeps putting McCombs in positions to pick up yards as the rest of the team has only 108 yards combined.
Nick Williams is a dynamic playmaker that has been utilized in all phases. He has caught 12 passes for 158 yards (both second on the team), averaged 19.6 yards-per-return on punts including a touchdown and has even made contributions in the run game. Geremy Davis has been the team's most reliable receiver with 268 yards while tight end Ryan Griffin has recovered from a slow start with touchdown receptions in each of the last two games.
Junior college transfer quarterback Chandler Whitmer has experienced his share of growing pains as the starter for the Huskies. Whitmer has completed 61.9 percent of his pass attempts for 1,051 yards, but his six interceptions have overshadowed his four touchdown passes.
The offense has not needed to be overly effective because of Connecticut's dominant defense. The Huskies are allowing only 15.6 points and leading the Big East in total defense (242.6 yards). The Huskies have been strong due to the play of the front seven. The Huskies lead the Big East with 15 sacks and 39 tackles for loss this season.
In fact the Huskies have the top three players in the conference in tackles for loss led by Yawin Smallwood (10.0), Trevardo Williams (7.5) and Sio Moore (6.0). Williams (6.5) and Smallwood (3.5) are the top two in the conference in sacks as well.
For a blueprint on how to handle the Huskies, Flood need only look at his own squad, as Rutgers shares many of the same characteristics as Connecticut. Both teams rely on a strong running game to get enough offense going for a dominant defense.
Jawan Jamison has been a workhorse this season for Rutgers carrying the ball 102 times for 491 yards this season. Jamison is the top rusher in the conference, despite playing only four games and his 102 carries is second only to McCombs, who has played in five games.
Even with Jamison's effort the offense does not score at a high rate ((27.0 ppg) nor pick up a large amount of yards (394.8 ypg).
Gary Nova has done enough in the passing game to keep Rutgers in the win column this season, completing 59.7 percent of his passes for 962 yards and nine touchdowns. Most importantly though has been his ability to protect the ball, with only two interceptions.
Just like Connecticut, Rutgers defense is what has led it to success this season. The Scarlet Knights just don't allow other teams to get on the scoreboard, ranking 10th in the country in scoring defense (12.8 ppg), while allowing only 10 red zone trips this season. It has been particularly difficult to score against Rutgers in the second and third quarters, with the Scarlet Knights outscoring their opponents 70-6 this season.
"We're fortunate to have established players on defense," Flood said of his defense's success. "I think we've done a good job of being disruptive up front and when our second level guys have gotten opportunity to make tackles they've done a good job tackling."
The most important of those established players is linebacker Khaseem Greene who is second in the Big East in tackles (41), while leading Rutgers with a pair of sacks this season. Jamal Merrell is also ranked in the top 10 in the conference in tackles (32) and leads the Scarlet Knights with five tackles for loss.