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Film Review: How UConns Defense Stopped Houston

It was a magical Saturday afternoon in Storrs as the UConn Huskies won their sixth game of 2015, triumphing over the previously undefeated Houston Cougars, 20-17. This victory propelled the Huskies to bowl eligibility for the first time since their Fiesta Bowl appearance following the 2010 season, a massive accomplishment for Bob Diaco's young team.
Overall, the offense played admirably. Tim Boyle stepped in for Bryant Shirreffs, playing efficiently and consistently. He never took a sack and made some big plays that converted drives. Noel Thomas had two touchdowns and both Tyraiq Beals and Hergy Mayala made receptions that extended key drives throughout the afternoon. The offensive line opened up some holes for Arkeel Newsome, who managed to claw out some tough gains. Ron Johnson and Garrett Anderson each contributed big plays, too.
However, it was the defense that really shone against one of the best offenses in the country, giving up a mere 10 points. Although Houston was without their star quarterback Greg Ward for most of the day, the potent Cougars were expected to run roughshod over the Huskies even with youngster Kyle Postma at the helm. Head Coach Tom Herman is one of the foremost offensive minds in the country, and his presence elevated Houston to No. 19 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 13 in the AP Poll coming into the game.
UConn was prepared to battle, though, and co-defensive coordinators Anthony Poindexter and Vincent Brown had concocted quite the game plan. Funnily enough, the plan seemed to have been gleaned from one of the team's worst defensive performances of the year.
The Huskies had last played a spread offense when they faced off against the Cincinnati Bearcats in October. UConn lost that game by a score of 37-13, mostly due to the fact that they could not handle the dynamic Bearcat athletes in spaces. The cornerbacks played a lot of off-man coverage, while the dime spot was handled for the most part by Vontae Diggs, a linebacker hybrid. While Diggs is quite athletic, he still drew an unfair mismatch against faster wide receivers for most of the showdown. In addition, against Cincinnati, the defensive line had major issues generating pressure. Luke Carrezola and Foley Fatukasi were neutralized for the most part, giving quarterback Gunner Kiel ample time to scan the field and make plays.
Given the results of this game, it would be sensible for the Huskies to not run this scheme for the remainder of the year. However, this same concept - off-man with limited blitzing - worked to perfection against Houston. Why?
First of all, the Cougars sought to test the Huskies more with horizontal routes than vertical ones. Other than a deep touchdown to Chance Allen, Houston's quarterbacks threw a lot of lateral passes at the line of scrimmage, testing the tackling of UConn's defenders. For the most part, they were up to the task, containing any playmakers and keeping ball carriers in front of them.
Secondly, the safeties had a phenomenal day. Andrew Adams, Obi Melifonwu, and Junior Lee have had some issues this year when it comes to consistent play, but all three were solid as rocks in the back of UConn's defense. Adams had an interception and led the team with seven tackles on the day, while Obi had six tackles and a pass breakup. Lee had an important pressure on Postma toward the end of the game, as well as a pass breakup. The safeties played all over the field; deep, in man, and in the box. Their steady performances allowed for the front seven to focus on their responsibilities, assuaging any fears regarding potential big plays.
Finally, the pass rush performed. Against Cincinnati, the UConn front four was impotent; versus Houston, Luke Carrezola and Foley Fatukasi feasted. Carrezola had two sacks, flashing great burst and bend routinely. Fatukasi had a sack and forced a fumble on a super aware play in the second quarter, stripping Postma as he scrambled. Other defenders stepped up as well - Cameron Stapleton had two hurries, Graham Stewart showed impressive range throughout the afternoon, and Julian Campenni keyed the middle of the defense, holding down the potent Cougar rushing attack. All in all, the Huskies won the battle in the trenches, a harbinger of things to come in this game.
The anatomy of an upset is about 5% luck, 15% preparation, and 80% execution. Going into the Houston matchup, the Huskies believed in themselves. They thought they had a chance to knock the top team in the AAC off of their pedestal if they just played their brand of football. The game plan was perfection, the execution was fairly spot on, and the breaks were there. Now, UConn can get ready for Temple, a winning season squarely in their sights.