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The Big USF vs. UConn Preview

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This is the first time in years where one team is clearly superior to the other. Does that mean the string of close games will end?

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

When USF and Connecticut kick off Saturday night, the Huskies will pull back into a tie with Cincinnati as USF's most frequent opponent. This will be the 14th all-time meeting between the two schools. Incredibly, 12 of them have been decided by eight points or less. Only 2001 and 2006 victories by the Bulls (40-21 and 38-16, respectively) have bucked the trend.

Most of these games have been close because the two teams were of equal quality, or equal lack of quality in some instances. For once, that's not the case. USF is definitely the better team going into this matchup. But will it translate on the scoreboard?

Peripherals

Team S&P (Overall) S&P (USF O vs. UConn D) S&P (UConn O vs. USF D) S&P (ST)
USF 28 9 74 8
UConn 83 66 104 39

USF is really starting to grade out well, largely because of two reasons: the Bulls have effectively blown out everyone they've played not named FSU, and they have one of the best offenses in the nation. The defense is still mediocre-to-terrible and has nothing to do this-- even an average defense would probably catapult the Bulls into the top 15. But alas.

UConn turned a corner of sorts last year in making a bowl for the first time since 2010 (when they made their remarkable run for the Fiesta Bowl, somehow), but they still weren't terribly improved. The Huskies ranked 87th in S&P+ in 2015, and despite murmurs around the squad as a potential dark horse in the AAC East, UConn has remained just about the same in 2016. This is a very typical UConn squad from what we've come to expect over the last couple seasons: Good defense, horrendous offense, and strong special teams. The defense is a little weaker than usual and the offense presents at least a prayer of moving the ball, unlike years past, but Bob Diaco and company have not managed to turn things around in Storrs yet.

That's not to say the Huskies are awful, because they're not. They took Navy to the wire on the road and snuck past Virginia earlier in the season, but also got outplayed in a win over Maine and lost pretty handily to Syracuse and Houston. Their best performance of the season by far came in last week's comeback victory over Cincinnati in which the Huskies suffocated the Bearcats in the red zone and eventually pulled away for a 20-9 win. This defense isn't a joke, and Bryant Shirreffs and company have been able to put together enough key fourth-quarter drives to keep the Huskies afloat and alive for a bowl at 3-3.

When UConn Runs...

Team Rushing S&P Rushing Efficiency Rushing Explosiveness
UConn Offense 123 123 76
USF Defense 77 81 29

You know how I keep saying something along the lines of "If USF can't stop [Insert Team Here] running the ball, they won't be able to stop anything?" You know how USF never stops those teams? Well, they get one last chance today.

UConn is not good at running the ball. This is unfortunate for them, because Bob Diaco loves running the ball more than anything else in the world. The Huskies rank 33rd in the country in running rate on passing downs, and run the ball with determination, glee, and varying degrees of ineffectiveness. UConn had yet to average over 3.2 yards per carry against an FBS team until, uh, "breaking out" for 4.6 ypc against Cincinnati. Still, junior Arkeel Newsome has been running well as of late, averaging just under 6 yards per carry in his last four games. Given Diaco's love of the run game and USF's very iffy run defense, I'd expect to see a healthy dose of Newsome today, and I'd expect him to be very effective. Shirreffs is also a pesky running threat out of the backfield.

Until USF can prove otherwise-- and they had two golden chances against poor Cincy and ECU running attacks-- it's safe to assume that most teams are going to be able to move the ball on the ground against them. For the Huskies, this is key: they play at a slower pace than the Bulls and will likely try to lean on the running game in the hopes of keeping USF's offense off the field. It's a good strategy, and it could very well land the Bulls in a rock fight that they did not expect to be in.

When UConn Passes...

Team Passing S&P Passing Effiency Passing Explosiveness
UConn Offense 102 36 110
USF Defense 45 64 16

Shirreffs, the former NC State transfer, has not been able to find any sort of spark in the passing game this season. He hasn't been awful, completing 61% of his passes on about a 2,500-yard pace, but the Huskies have largely been content to nickel-and-dime the ball down the field and haven't had much success stretching defenses.

This could be bad news for USF, who like to keep most everything in front of them on defense. The Bulls haven't had a poor pass defense by any means, but they've been content to try to stop offenses on early downs and then give up some cushion in coverage. The Huskies have been adept at taking what defenses give them, so there's reason to believe that they can move the ball, slowly but surely, through the air.

It also helps to have a weapon like Noel Thomas. Thomas is far and away UConn's best offensive weapon, catching an astounding 50% of Shirreffs' completions. To put that into perspective: Thomas has 55 catches on the season; the next highest individual total is 16. He's a first down machine, and probably the biggest downfield* test for the Bulls' defense since the FSU game.

*Since we're talking UConn here, "downfield" is like, ten yards. But still. Thomas is really good.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P Rushing Effiency Rushing Explosiveness
USF Offense 30 20 29
UConn Defense 39 29 25

The most impressive unit on this UConn team is undoubtedly their run defense, so we'll be seeing strength match up against strength tonight. The Huskies' front has been downright nasty in their last few games, totally stuffing Syracuse (2.4 yards per carry) and Cincinnati (0.1 (!!!)).

Syracuse and Cincinnati, of course, don't have the most impressive running games. Still, this is the best non-Florida State defensive front that the Bulls have faced this season, and it'll be interesting to see if they're able to slow down the high-powered USF attack. If the Huskies can get some early stops and force Quinton Flowers to take to the air, I think they have a genuine chance at hanging around in this game. That's much easier said than done, though-- no one has held the USF rushing attack in check for an entire four quarters yet.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P Passing Efficiency Passing Explosiveness
USF Offense 60 57 3
UConn Defense 115 125 34

As strong as the UConn defense has been against the run, they've been similarly vulnerable against the pass. The Huskies' last three opponents have gained an average of 382 yards through the air, and they haven't really had to go over the top to do it. Greg Ward torched the Huskies with a 40-for-49 performance, while Syracuse's Eric Dungey went 26 for 40.

USF's biggest weapon on offense is the ability to strike from anywhere on the field, but their big-play ability may not be terribly necessary in this game. The Huskies, like the Bulls, have been vaguely effective at playing bend-but-don't-break defense, willing to surrender long drives in the hopes of tightening before opponents get to the red zone. This worked like a dream against Cincinnati, as the Bearcats strung together three drives into UConn territory... and got a total of 9 points out of them. USF tried to screen ECU to death last week, and it worked pretty well in the first half-- this would be a wise strategy to use against UConn if the Huskies are willing to give the Bulls some cushion underneath.

Summary & Prediction

There's no doubting that USF is a significantly better team, but UConn has just enough quirks to give the Bulls fits (what else is new?). The Huskies are capable of putting together long, time-devouring drives on offense, and could find a fair amount of success against a weak Bulls defensive front. Say UConn strings together a couple of these in the first half-- USF won't touch the ball too many times, and the halftime score could be downright ugly. It doesn't help that the UConn defense might take a few drives for the Bulls to crack.

I don't think the Huskies will be able to contain the Bulls' offense for long, though, and USF should find some cushion in the second half. This could be a long, unpleasant, slog of a game-- as it almost always is against UConn-- but unlike many of the Bulls' meetings with the Huskies, I expect that this one will end with USF comfortably on top. Eventually.

USF 38, UConn 17