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    UConn Football
    Monday, January 30, 2023

    UConn football visits highly motivated, nationally-ranked Houston

    UConn could be walking into a hornets nest on Thursday night.

    It will be difficult for the Huskies to survive a trip to Houston without being stung.

    They're a heavy underdog heading into the nationally-televised American Athletic Conference game (ESPN) that kicks off at 8 p.m. Thursday at TDECU Stadium.

    The Cougars (4-0, 1-0) have stormed their way into the top 10, sitting at No. 6 overall, the program's highest ranking since 1990. They're on a prolonged hot streak, winning 18 of their last 19 games since early December of 2014. Their only loss came against UConn, a stunning 20-17 decision last Nov. 21 in East Hartford that made the Huskies bowl eligible.

    Let's just say the Cougars haven't forgotten about that loss.

    "Some of the older guys who were on that team last year that played in that game, I'd be foolish to not think that there was some added motivation to atone for the wrongs that were made or committed in Connecticut last year and hopefully make them right," Houston coach Tom Herman said. "But we don't talk about it much as a coaching staff as added motivation."

    UConn coach Bob Diaco has a different view about the motivating role that last year's result will play in Thursday's game.

    He believes it won't be a factor once the game begins.

    "That's very interesting talk," Diaco said. "It's great banter to see people talk about and read about. It has no use in the game. Zero. If it's really, really dynamic, if it's really, really electric, if it's really, really passionately put out there and hammered home, it might last a minute and a half. That's it.

    "The players play, they do their jobs. They execute. You play with a particular effort and energy during a play. And you win the down, or you lose the down. And that's what creates winning and losing. It's not an overall beginning of the week-long mentality."

    It's also something that UConn (2-2, 0-1) has no control over.

    The Huskies already have enough to worry about trying to stop Houston, which averages 44.8 points and allows only 10.5. The Cougars have beaten then No. 3 Oklahoma (33-23), Lamar (42-0), AAC foe Cincinnati (40-16) and Texas State (64-3).

    Houston senior quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., a Heisman Trophy candidate, is a major concern for the Huskies. He's averaging 312 passing yards per game in three starts — a shoulder injury forced him to miss the season opener — and accounted for eight touchdowns, five passing, three rushing. Last season, he became the first Houston quarterback to run for 1,000 yards and set a program single-season record for rushing touchdowns with 21.

    Due to an injury, Ward Jr. played only five plays in last year's meeting with UConn.

    "Greg Ward, Jr. is one of the most electric players in America at his position," Diaco said. "What's interesting, there's a lot of banter about how talented he is running, which is true. He runs like a great back or a great slot (receiver). He was a wide receiver before he became a quarterback.

    "... He's got pocket presence. He's an accurate passer. He puts their offense into good plays. He's got high football intelligence."

    Houston's defense is even better than its offense.

    The Cougars have the nation's top rushing defense, allowing a paltry 37 yards per game, and also are fourth in scoring defense and fifth in total defense (228.8 yards). Individually, senior linebacker Steven Taylor (5.5 sacks, second-best in the nation) is a player to watch. Houston leads the AAC with 14 sacks.

    "Defense has been carrying us," Herman said.

    Mistakes played a major factor in last year's game. Houston committed four turnovers compared to none for UConn and still nearly overcame a late deficit.

    Winning the turnover battle is likely a must for UConn to have a chance to pull off the upset.

    Even that might not be enough considering the opponent.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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