It was UMass' first game as an FBS (or Division 1 as sane people still call it) football team, and it appeared UConn took great pleasure in welcoming them to the big leagues with a 37-0 rout. While the offense still sputtered at times there were three important lessons to take away from the win before we to take a look at this weekend's opponent in N.C. State and give realistic expectations for the rest of the season.
First thing that jumps out is the dominant play of the defense, playing so magnificently that they are at this juncture the nation's top ranked defense in every category. The defense allowed just 58 yards in the game and posted a shutout. I think more telling is the fact that in the game UMass only managed three first downs and never made it out past their own 38 yard line, a shutout is one thing but to have the team never threaten to score or even make it to the other side of the field is something completely different. This defense looks like it can be the top defense in the league if it just maintains this pace and if it can continue to improve on last weeks performance and gets a chance to stay off the field with some consistent offensive play it could become one of the top defenses in the country. Of course with this team offensive consistency is never a given, but there is hope with this squad but more on that later.
The second thing about this game that struck me was the play of the special teams and more specifically Nick Williams. Of the 37 points that were scored in the game against UMass, the special teams were responsible for 16 of them with three field goals and a blocked punt that was recovered in the endzone. Dave Teggart was not my favorite player on the UConn team over the last couple of seasons (to be fair when is a kicker anyone's favorite) but he was consistent and there was concern when he graduated at the end of last season that we would lose that constant threat that he posed late in games to hit the game winner, well if what we saw in week one is an indication Chad Christen will fill those shoes nicely moving forward. He hit from 36, 47, and 19 yards which gave me as a fan confidence in his range and accuracy (although pleas note the 47 yarder was very low and could've been blocked if UMass had gotten any sort of push at the line). The real shining star on special teams in this game was Nick Williams. After a couple years fighting for a spot in the backfield to be the running back and being relegated to kick and punt returns, it seems Williams has found his niche as an all around talent that can be a game changer in many ways. As far back as the year UConn made the Fiesta Bowl we've seen his vision and breakout speed on returns (he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Oklahoma in the Fiesta, one of the greatest moments in my career as a sports fan and possibly the greatest plays I've seen live) but it appears he has honed his craft even more so, almost taking every punt or kickoff to the house. He continues to be a versatile player on offense as well, specializing in open field play on reverses and quick slant passes which has started people comparing him to Wes Welker. I don't hate the comparison but Williams is much more important to this team as a specialist on special teams than he is a threat in the offensive game.
The third and potentially most exciting development coming out of this game is the fact that we may have a competent quarterback for the first time since Zach Frazier played well in the Fiesta Bowl (his only shining moment in an otherwise overwhelmingly disappointing career) and before that Dan Orlovsky from the first years as an FBS team. Chandler Whitmer had a decent opening game for the Huskies but lacked consistency and decision making was a problem at times, that being said he had shining moments and looked to be capable of making all the big throws expected of a high level collegiate quarterback. If the coaches can work with him and limit his mistakes this team has great potential to win a watered down Big East this year, especially with the defense and special teams backing him up.
That brings us to this weekend and the N.C. State Wolfpack. In their opening game N.C. State lost to Tennessee 35-21 in a game that was never that close. Turnovers were the really story with the Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon throwing four interceptions allowing Tennessee to score 16 points in the span of 38 seconds at one point. If the Huskies can create pressure on Glennon he has proven to be a terrible decision maker with someone in his face and with the talent at secondary it could be another long day for N.C. State fans. Of course all of this depends on the UConn offense being able to score points, something that has been an issue for as long as I can remember. The offensive line needs to play much better against a much more powerful defensive line to get Lyle McCombs the touches he needs to be the elite back he can be while continued progress and improvement from Chandler Whitmer is needed to take some of the pressure off of the running game. Overall I think this match-up favors the Huskies and with the same level of play from the defense and the improvements already discussed from the offense this should be another win for UConn.
Looking to the rest of the season there is a lot of cause for celebration, UConn has one of the easiest schedules in the Big East saving our biggest conference games for the end of the season and a non conference schedule that should be a cake walk. Aside from this weeks game against N.C. State the Huskies play a horrendous Maryland team week 3 (Maryland beat FCS foe William and Mary by a whopping 1 point last week and plays Big East member Temple this weekend) followed by Western Michigan and Buffalo. If all goes according to plan and this team can maintain the level of play discussed it is not out of the question for them to start 5-0 before even playing a Big East game. A lot of that hinges on this weekend's game against N.C. State as well, beating a well respected ACC team would do wonders for the confidence of this offense and for the team in general moving forward through the schedule. Prediction for this weekend is UConn 24 - N.C. State 17 and prediction right now for the season is 9-3 with losses to Louisville, South Florida, and one other Big East team to be named at a later date (yes, I realize this is a bit of a weak move but it leaves room for me being wrong). I like this team's chances, especially in this league to be a contender with strong defense and an offense that can control the time of possession.