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Unbeaten Wyoming up next for UConn football team

Ask UConn interim head coach Lou Spanos about Jackson Mitchell and he perks up.

"When you say Jackson Mitchell, I smile," Spanos said.

Jackson, a sophomore linebacker, is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the UConn football team.

He ranks first in the country in total tackles (46) and sixth in tackles per game (11.5), including 14.3 in the last three games.

"He's playing at a high level," Spanos said. "He's just getting better and better and better. He practices hard. He's wired in in the meetings. It's rewarding to see all the hard work that he's doing and finally being known on a national level, because our team knows he's special."

His talent will be on display again when UConn hosts Wyoming on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBSSN) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

After starring at Ridgefield High School and setting the school record for sacks with 14.5 during his senior season, Mitchell arrived at UConn and made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2019, playing in 10 games. He finished as the leading tackler among true freshmen in the country at 6.5 per game.

When UConn called off its season last fall for COVID-19 related reasons, the 6-foot-2 Mitchell went straight to the weight room, adding 19 pounds to climb to 229.

He's also worked on his preparation.

"I've just been studying the game a lot," Mitchell said. "My film study has gotten a lot better. I think the way I've been able to produce so far this year isn't where I want it to be. But I think the film study has helped get me to the point that I'm at right now, getting tackles and flying all over the field to make plays."

While Mitchell has played well, UConn's defense overall has performed poorly.

The Huskies (0-4) are allowing 46 points and 491.8 yards per game, ranking nearing the bottom of all Football Bowl Subdivision programs in those two categories.

They've been particularly bad in the second quarter, being outscored 97-7.

They've also mounted little resistance at times, giving up scoring drives of five plays or less 11 times this season.

Last week, Army needed only 22 plays to score on its first five touchdown drives on the way to a 52-21 win.

"We've got to be more physical," Mitchell said. "We've also got to limit the big plays. Those are killing us. ... When we give them three-play drives and then they score a touchdown and they're scoring in like a minute and a half, that's why the score is getting run up like it is. And that doesn't help our offense at all when they're scoring in three plays. A team like Army should never have like a two-play drive in 50 seconds."

Now the Huskies face a potent Wyoming offense. The Cowboys (3-0) average 38 points and 373.3 yards per game, split between the air (200.3 yard per game) and ground (173 yards). Xazavian Valladay, the team's leading rusher, averages 79.7 yards per game and quarterback Sean Chambers has thrown for 601 yards and four touchdowns.

A member of the Mountain West, Wyoming has wins against Montana State (19-16), Northern Illinois (50-43) and Ball State (45-12). The Cowboys returned 20 starters this season — 10 on each side of the ball — including standout middle linebacker Chad Muma.

"They're winning as a team," Spanos said. "All three phases are calculated and executed. They're consistent. Offensively, they do a good job running and passing. ... They're a good team. They're well-rounded. It's going to be a tough one."

UConn already has had its share of "tough ones."

The Huskies will be trying to avoid losing their first five games in a season since 2013 when they dropped nine straight.

"At this point, we're playing for pride," Mitchell said. "Not a lot of people think highly of us as a team at all, so we're playing for pride. We want to go out there and show them what type of football players we are. We're not really worried about the future, we're worried about the next game, which is Wyoming.

"We want to go out there and get a win and keep building off that."

g.keefe@theday.com

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