UConn Defense Should Be Ready for Army
UConn hosts Army Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in a rematch of last year's disappointing loss for the Huskies at Yankee Stadium.
The Black Knights are coming off a loss to Fordham while UConn is in good spirits after starting the season with a win against Football Championship Subdivision power Villanova.
Much of the attention from the UConn side heading into the game centers around the difficulties of stopping Army's unique triple option attack. However, given the current trends in college offenses-and their evolution across the past decade-perhaps it is not such foreign territory.
"There's so many people running option football now," Army head coach Jeff Monken said in a teleconference Tuesday. "It's kind of caught back on with the zone-read stuff and so much of what you see in college football in the run game. There (are) a lot of option principles, so many of the things we're doing are similar to other people."
What are those principles?
"Trying to get double-team blocks at the point of attack," Monken said. "Read defenders rather than blocking defenders to not have to block everybody at the point of attack. Make defensive players make decisions about which way they're going to take."
While Army's well-oiled machine certainly will have its quirks, the elements of their system exist now at the highest levels of the sport. Most major programs are using similar concepts, just running it out of the shotgun.
A read option play out of the shotgun by say, Oregon or Ohio State, may have a fullback dive, QB outside sprint, WR screen pass and deep route option - all in one play. BYU and Temple are other examples of teams on UConn's schedule (both last year and this year) who employ these principles.
"Now spread teams try to do it," UConn head coach Bob Diaco said in his weekly press conference. "It'll be a hallmark of a few teams that we play, but the (U.S. service) academies are experts at it. And they're operating at a level and speed that you haven't seen until the game starts, that there's no way to simulate."
Diaco's deference is typical of a coach in his pregame press conference, but in many ways UConn is well-prepared for this match-up. Facing Villanova and defending their dual-threat quarterback out of the Wildcats' spread offense tested the same discipline which will be required of the UConn defense this weekend.
"(Villanova) created a lot of challenging circumstances," Diaco said. "And there's a lot of elements of triple option that are present in that offense. With that particular family of spread…there's a lot of inside-outside conflict. From that aspect (UConn's defensive performance against Villanova) was very positive."
"Villanova had similar concepts to the triple option," senior linebacker Graham Stewart said after practice Tuesday. "They just run it out of the gun, so I think it helped."
Ultimately UConn's success in stopping Army will come down to coaching. Defending any kind of option largely comes down to discipline taking angles and maintaining spatial assignments. Though there were some breakdowns, UConn's defense executed the "bend but don't break" philosophy, which Diaco preaches as a cornerstone of his system, successfully against Villanova. They should be able to continue doing so against Army.
With the added advantage of facing a younger and smaller Army team, UConn should not have too much trouble winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. The one hitch may come from the cut-blocking Army frequently engages in.
"They gotta play with their pads low," Diaco said, regarding how the defensive line can combat cut-blocking. "(They've) got to play with great pad level, and they have to play with their hands below their knees, protect their knees, protect their ankles, protect their feet, with their hands out in front… And work to stay square. That's an important piece."
Diaco downplayed the value of building on or learning from last year's match-up with Army, but did admit the experience helped the players and coaches.
"The massive amount of players that played in the game a year ago is a benefit," he said. "Even some of the coaches that are on our staff had never been part of a game, as a lead person, against the triple option. So it's a team affair. For everyone, coaches, and players, to understand how this game is conducted...That experience has been a real benefit."
Diaco expects his team to be more prepared for Saturday's game than the Huskies were when they went to Yankee Stadium last November.
"I would be disappointed if our team doesn't play better than we did a year ago," Diaco said. "We've worked since January to be better this weekend."
While the UConn players have improved greatly in their strength, technique and discipline, Diaco and his staff know first-hand how to keep Army's offense in check.
"You cannot let them run fullback," Diaco said. "If they're going to run fullback and gain significant yards, you're going to lose. If they throw explosive shot-passes downfield you're going to lose. That was a hallmark of the game last year."