Here is a scouting report on Connecticut, who hosts NC State at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on CBS College Sports.
Five Connecticut players to watch
Senior quarterback Joe Fagnano
The 6-foot-3, 224-pounder from Williamsport (Pa.) High spent four years at Maine, where he played his first three years under current UConn offensive coordinator Nick Charlton. He went 208-of-364 passing for 2,231 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he rushed 93 times for 296 yards and three scores. Fagnano threw for over 200 yards in six games. He went 21-of-43 passing for 289 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 38-17 loss at Boston College on Sept. 17. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
Redshirt senior right guard Christian Haynes
Haynes was a former Rivals.com two-star prospect who has blossomed coming out of Bowie (Md.) High. The Associated Press and The Sporting News both named him to their respective All-American teams. The 6-2, 313-pounder is on numerous preseason All-American lists for first team or second teams and on the “watch list” for the Outland Trophy. Haynes has 37 starts.
Senior middle linebacker Jackson Mitchell
The 6-2, 235-pounder has become a tackling machine for the Huskies. He had an astonishing 140 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and five recovered fumbles. He has 325 total tackles, plus 18 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also has five forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries in 35 games played (27 career starts). He was a Rivals.com two-star prospect, who was projected to play wide receiver in college coming out of Ridgefield (Conn.) High in the class of 2019.
Sophomore running back Victor Rosa
Injuries struck UConn at quarterback and running back last year, with Nathan Carter going down. Carter had rushed for 123 or more yards in two of his first four games last year, but then got hurt. He’s now at Michigan State. Rosa rushed 140 times for 636 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, but really hit his stride over the last seven games. The 5-11, 205-pound two-star prospect from Bristol, Conn., had a season-high 12 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown against Army on Nov. 19. He also returned kicks and punts last year.
Senior defensive end Eric Watts
The 6-5, 277-pounder had 49 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, seven sacks and nine quarterback hurries last year. He had five tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in the home win over Boston College. Watts has played in 35 games, and has 118 career tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Watts has started the last two years and has 22 career starts. He has gained at least 57 pounds since high school, coming out of Sumter (S.C.) High in the class of 2019.
What to watch for from Connecticut
1. Concentration on running the football. The Huskies didn’t have much offensively against NC State last year, but did rush for a respectable 121 yards on 32 yards, which was under the guise of not having any kind of a passing game (39 yards).
UConn put together three big wins to reach the Myrtle Beach Bowl against Marshall. The Huskies bounced back from the NC State loss by defeating Fresno State 19-14 on Oct. 1, 2022. The Bulldogs won their last nine games to finish 10-4. Connecticut rushed a staggering 55 times for 183 yards and a touchdown, with returning running back Devontae Houston leading the way with 105 yards.
UConn topped northeast neighbor Boston College 13-3, and rushed 39 times for 107 yards, so not a vintage effort, but a concerted one.
Liberty went 8-5 last year, including a 36-33 loss against Connecticut won Nov. 12, 2022. The ground game took over with the Huskies tallying 38 carries for 209 yards and three scores. Miami transfer Robert Burns led the way, but he has since graduated.
Syracuse and Michigan were the only two opponents who limited the Huskies to under 100 yards.
2. UConn got embarrassed last year. NC State led 31-3 at halftime against Connecticut last year, and the Huskies got embarrassed in the 41-10 Wolfpack win.
NCSU simply overwhelmed UConn across the board. Quarterback Devin Leary was the reason NC State dominated offensively. He completed 32 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns in his best performance of 2022, before getting hurt. He has transferred to Kentucky this season.
NC State didn’t have Jordan Houston at running back last year due to injury. NCSU sophomore running back Michael Allen got his first college carry against the Huskies, and he led the Wolfpack with 10 carries for 66 yards.
UConn returns safety Durante Jones, who had a team-high 13 tackles against the Wolfpack. He was third on the team with 97 tackles last year.
3. Quick passing game. Once upon a time, a then freshman Joseph Fagnano threw for 445 yards and five touchdowns while playing for Maine in a. 59-44 loss at Liberty on Oct. 19, 2019. UConn threw for just 39 yards against NC State last year.
Fagnano has thrown for 5,466 yards, 45 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his college career, and that includes playing just four games in 2020 due to COVID, and three games in 2021.
At first glance, it seemed a little bit of a surprise that Fagnano beat out former Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s season opener, plus returning starter Zion Turner. Upon deeper studying, it shouldn’t have been surprising Fagnano won the job, especially with his past connection to offensive coordinator Nick Charlton, who was the head coach at Maine until 2021.
The 6-3, 224-pounder has completed 59.7 percent of his passes, and he has quick enough feet in the pocket to buy some time. He should be able to pepper the short passing game, and take a few shots downfield. He has good zip on the ball and has plenty of past experience where he aired it out at times at Maine. The game will be faster compared to the FCS ranks, but the Huskies were so anemic throwing the ball last year with 1,455 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 scores.
Three keys to the game for NC State football
1. Can NC State produce big plays in passing game? The Wolfpack struggled to produce passing games over 40 yards last year.
Former NC State receiver Thayer Thomas went for a 75-yard touchdown with a nifty adjustment to the pass and then taking off for the final 40 yards or so against UConn to set the standard. However, the Wolfpack only had four receptions of at least 40 yards.
Former receiver Devin Carter took advantage of a UNC cornerback slipping and he went 52 yards for a touchdown. The other two plays were a 43-yarder to current sophomore Terrell Timmons, and a 40-yarder to current redshirt sophomore receiver Anthony Smith.
Rice transfer Bradley Rozner caught at least a 40-yard pass in five different games last year, so that’s a good start. Freshmen Kevin Concepcion and Javonte Vereen will be counted on to show why they were gifted prep players, but how much can you rely on first-year players?
The key in the big picture is receivers such as senior Keyon Lesane, junior Porter Rooks, redshirt sophomore Julian Gray or Timmons step up and deliver. Maybe it is big play by committee in some ways — when including tight ends and running backs — but NC State needs a boost by whatever means necessary.
2. Short-yardage running ability. The odds are good there will be a handful of situations Thursday where NC State will be facing an obvious run call.
NCSU struggled at times last year in short-yardage situations, which gets amplified if it happens in the red zone or on third down and short or fourth and short. NC State doesn’t have that 225-pound banger to run up the middle like say vintage Reggie Gallaspy in 2018.
NC State will have four former starters in a round about way on the offensive line this season, and they will surely get tested and challenged. Redshirt junior tackle Timothy McKay started 10 of 13 games last year, and redshirt junior left tackle Anthony Belton started eight of 13 contests.
Redshirt junior center Dylan McMahon started all 13 games, but 10 of them came at right guard. Fifth-year senior Derrick Eason started three games last year at right guard, and the former defensive tackle started seven contests in 2021. The lone offensive lineman who hasn’t started more than one game is redshirt sophomore left guard Anthony Carter, who is filling in for the injured Lyndon Cooper. He started against Maryland in the bowl game, and he played 118 snaps in eight games last year.
3. NC State trying a new kicker. Replacing kicker Christopher Dunn was never going to be easy, but the hope an experienced older kicker like Brayden Narveson should get it done, no pun intended.
Dunn went 28 of 29 on field goals with a long of 53 yards, and he made all 30 extra points for 114 points. Narveson is now kicking on a bigger stage after spending the last three years at Western Kentucky. He went 15 of 21 on field-goal attempts last year with a long of 51, and made all 59 extra points for 104 points. He didn’t kick in WKU’s bowl game.
Narveson missed two kicks between 20-29 yards, and one attempt between 30-39 yards. Of the longer field goals, he missed three field goals of at least 40 yards, including going 6 of 8 on field goals of 40-49 yards.
Narveson was able to beat out redshirt junior Collin Smith in what apparently was a spirited battle during the spring and fall camp. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native spent his first two years at Iowa State, and then found his groove at WKU, but he still one wanted a shot at kicking on a bigger stage.
Three numbers of note
5 Bowl games coach Jim Mora has played in among his seven years coaching college football. He went to four bowl games at UCLA and surprisingly led UConn to a bowl berth last year. He went to the NFL playoffs in one of the four years he coached at that level.
39 Passing yards Connecticut had last year in the 41-10 loss at NC State. The Huskies went 10 of 15 passing for 39 yards and zero touchdowns.
284.5 Average weight for UConn’s four defensive linemen that could start against NC State. The biggest of the group is redshirt senior Sokoya McDuffie, who is listed at 6-5 and 296 pounds. Even the reserves are good sized, with three of the reserve defensive tackles over 301 pounds.
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