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UConn and East Carolina collide in battle of slumping football teams

They are two football programs trying to stop a freefall.

UConn and East Carolina are in desperate need of a victory Saturday when the two American Athletic Conference teams meet at noon (ESPNews) at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, S.C.

UConn (3-5, 1-4) has lost four of five and East Carolina (2-5, 0-3) has dropped five straight.

Both teams have been their own worst enemies at times, struggling to score in the red zone and giving up too many big plays. Something has to give Saturday.

"We got to get it back on the tracks," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "For me, there's only one way to do it, with love, trust, respect, communication, care more deeply, find another way, give a little bit more. ... As a head coach, acknowledge the fact that it's been hard on the players, whether they're physically gassed or not.

"We're in week nine and every game has been a four-quarter battle. There hasn't been a moment where you can relax physically and that's not even talking about the emotional taxing nature of what we've been through.

"... We need to have a little bit more fun. We need to be cognizant of the fact that we're at the end of a very, very grueling beginning schedule and maybe that will help a little bit, too."

Maybe the Huskies can draw some positive energy from last year's experience.

They were in the exact same position in 2015, floundering at 3-5 overall. A 31-13 win over East Carolina sparked a three-game winning streak that saved their season and eventually helped them qualify for a bowl game.

"It was very important to get that win," senior cornerback John Green said. "We just needed one win to spark us and find our groove again. I feel it's the same with this week. We're prepared to win and we're going to win. They're a good team but I feel like we're a better team, so we'll get it done."

Diaco has spotted some improvements in recent weeks. Negative offensive plays have declined while ball security has improved.

But nagging problems, including red zone production, remain a roadblock to success. Seven trips inside Central Florida's 25-yard-line last weekend produced just one touchdown, contributing to a 24-16 loss.

A leaky defense has hurt, too.

"You put a finger in a crack here and a finger in a crack there and another one kind of springs," Diaco said.

Another thing that needs fixing is road performance. The Huskies are winless in three away games, so that success rate will have to improve for them to reach their desired destination.

East Carolina, its only wins coming at home against West Carolina and North Carolina State, also has glaring flaws. The Pirates are porous on defense, allowing a league worst 32.4 points per game and sitting next to last in total defense (434 yards per game).

They're explosive on offense, averaging a league-best 513.7 yards and featuring the conference's top rated and fifth nationally ranked passing attack (364.4 yards per game). But they've had trouble finishing drives, ranking last in the AAC in red zone offense (UConn is 8th), and have committed a league-high 17 turnovers.

"If we can score points, we have a great chance of winning the game," East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said. "It's not just about moving the ball up and down the field. We've got to be better in the red zone. We've just got to get the ball in the end zone."

The Pirates lean heavily on the lethal senior duo of quarterback Philip Nelson (2,124 yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions) and explosive pro prospect Zay Jones, who averages a FBS-best 13.6 receptions per game and ranks fourth among all active career leaders in receiving yards with 3,442. He's had at least one catch in 42 straight games, the fourth longest active streak in the country.

The Huskies have had issues defending the pass, ranking 117th in the nation allowing 289.9 yards.

"Awesome player," Diaco said of Jones. "We need to be aware of where he is. He's going to make some plays. He's a great player. We also need to play our defense. We can't sell the farm to stop him unless it persisted in the game."

It doesn't get any easier next week for the Huskies, who host East Division co-leader Temple (5-3, 3-1) on Friday night at Rentschler Field.

g.keefe@theday.com

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