The non-conference slate continues Saturday when 1-0 Illinois heads to the east coast to take on the 1-0 UConn Huskies of the (for now) American Athletic Conference. 950 miles separates Memorial Stadium in Champaign from Rentschler Field in East Hartford, making this the longest (by distance) road trip the Illini have in 2019.
Just one game in, and UConn, a team that went 1-11 last season, already has fears of another disastrous campaign under head coach Randy Edsall. The Huskies barely beat FCS school Wagner in Week 1, and was outscored in the second half in their home opener last Thursday night. It was an ugly, far-from-convincing win against a 4-win Wagner team last year that has a stadium with a seating capacity of 4,000.
UConn’s last FBS win came almost two years ago — when the Huskies beat Tulsa 20-14 in October 2017. Illinois comes into this game feeling confident after last week’s 42-3 W over Akron.
UConn has every reason in the world to fear an Illinois team seeking win No. 2.
When UConn Has The Ball
UConn likes to run the football
If Game 1 against Wagner was any indication — and it is — UConn will be a run-first football team in 2019 and against Illinois on Saturday. All three of the Huskies’ touchdowns last week were rushing touchdowns by three different players: quarterback Mike Beaudry and running backs Kevin Mensah and Art Thompkins.
Mensah had 36 carries for 144 yards against Wagner. Mensah’s 36 rushing attempts last week was more than any FBS player had over the course of the entire opening week/weekend. He was a 1,000+ yard running back a year ago, scoring six total touchdowns. It’s clear that UConn’s offense and tempo goes through and relies upon Mensah for ball control — UConn’s offense had the ball for 11 more minutes than Wagner did last week.
Complimenting Mensah in the backfield is Toledo graduate transfer Art Thompkins. Both Mensah and Thompkins are small running backs listed at 5-foot-8 and both are under 200 pounds. Thompkins figures to spell Mensah, especially if UConn’s passing game looks as poor as it did against Wagner.
Unproven quarterback play
UConn’s starting quarterback is a big, older yet inexperienced player who comes from the Division II ranks. Aside from last week’s game against Wagner, Mike Beaudry’s only college football snaps were were at the University of West Florida — a DII Football program that’s only been in existence since 2015. In 2017, he threw for 3,215 yards and 29 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions as he led the West Florida Argonauts to the DII National Championship.
Last year, he sat the entire season after suffering an injury in UConn’s opener. In the Wagner game last week, Beaudry completed 14 of 21 passes for 158 yards, no touchdowns a 71-yard pick six.
Despite his Division I inexperience, Beaudry is an absolute unit at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. He looks like a tight end playing quarterback, and he’s much bigger than any of the Illinois linebackers. In short yardage situations, the Illini have to be wary of designed quarterback runs — Beaudry is so big and physical that he’s capable of earning first downs even against goal-line defenses designed to stop the QB sneak.
When Illinois Has The Ball
The Illini have to be cognizant of linebacker DJ Morgan, a transfer from Notre Dame who led the Huskies (and all AAC players) last week with 8.0 tackles. A former 4-star recruit from California and high school teammate of NFL QB and UCLA star Josh Rosen, Morgan played safety in high school before adding 25 pounds in the next three seasons to bulk up for the linebacker position. He barely saw the field at Notre Dame, but he earned his degree in three years there and is now at UConn working on his graduate degree.
As far as scheme is concerned, Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith addressed UConn’s defense during Monday’s press conference:
#illini OC Rod Smith: UConn runs a multiple scheme defense. Jump between 3- and 4-man DL. Well-coached. It's a different coordinator than last year, so last year's stats and film don't matter (when UConn had one of worst FBS defenses ever).— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) September 2, 2019
UConn’s defensive coordinator is Lou Spanos, a former college center at Tulsa and a coach who spent 14 years (1995-2009) as a defensive quality assistant/assistant linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was part of a coaching staff that won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, and his coaching resume is comprised mostly of coaching linebackers at the professional level.
The sample size for what UConn will try to do this year is small given the change in the defensive coaching staff. Junior defensive back Tyler Coyle is the team’s returning leading tackler from a season ago and his 108.0 total tackles last year was good for fifth best in the AAC.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES
A season ago, Tyler Coyle was UConn’s kick returner and wasn’t half bad at the job. He ranked in the top 10 in the AAC in total and average kick return yardage. Against Wagner, (again, small sample size) Coyle was not in the game at all on special teams. We’ll see if that continues Saturday against the Illini.
Kicking and Punting
UConn’s kicker is redshirt-freshman Clayton Harris. He was perfect against Wagner, making all three of his extra points and successfully hit a 30-yard field goal.
UConn’s punter is redshirt sophomore Luke Magliozzi — and Magliozzi was a big reason UConn did not lose its close game versus Wagner last weekend. Magliozzi punted four times against Wagner, averaging 48.3 yards per punt — the longest punt went for 54 yards. None of those punts were downed inside the 20, but his punting range is very solid and is certainly a strength for this Huskies football team.