With standards raised, UConn football looks for fast start in season-opener against NC State

Jim Mora’s phone was littered with messages of “good job” and “atta boy” after the UConn football team blew a 14-point first quarter lead and lost to Utah State, 31-20, to kick off his first season as head coach last August. Fans and supporters of the Huskies were happy just to watch their team be competitive , it was a rarity then.
This year it’s a different story. Mora and the Huskies, disappointed in how last season ended, the 6-7 record below their personal standard, have spent much of the last few weeks promoting Thursday’s season-opener, under the Rentschler Field lights against NC State. They expect around 30,000, maybe more, fans in attendance, and potentially the largest crowd the program has had since Syracuse visited in 2016.
We’re ready to pack the Rent 😤
Tickets are still available to claim!! Let’s make this the loudest home opener yet. pic.twitter.com/H304LZKz4g
— UConn Students (@UConnStudents) August 29, 2023
The team has improved, but so have the expectations – UConn was a 38.5-point underdog when it visited NC State last year (UConn covered but lost, 41-10), and enters Thursday with the line at +14.5.
“You want to make a statement in the first game,” star linebacker Jackson Mitchell said Sunday. “It’s at home, exciting, hopefully we’ll have a big crowd. And we just want to show what we’ve done this offseason. We’re not too worried about whether it’s a Power Five (opponent), this, that, we’re just trying to focus on us and what we can do and show what we’ve done this offseason for the fans.”
UConn expects to look “a lot different” than it did last year – bigger, stronger, faster, more competitive with the programs at the Power Five level – but nothing is known until that opening kickoff.
Three storylines to WATCH:
1. Throw out last year’s tape. NC State brought in a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach, and, like UConn, went and got a quarterback familiar with that offensive coordinator. Brennan Armstrong, the former University of Virginia quarterback who is entering his sixth season of college football, broke school records in passing touchdowns (31), passing yards (4,449) and total offense (4,700) with Robert Anae as Virginia’s offensive coordinator in 2021. Anae went to Syracuse last year and helped guide the Orange offense to 48 points against UConn and, back in Virginia, Armstrong’s numbers went down across the board.
“From a defensive standpoint, the challenge is that you’ve got a coordinator, a quarterback and an offensive line coach who were all together at Virginia two years ago,” Mora said. “So defensively, in looking at NC State, you’re not really looking at our game from last year other than looking at particular players that you may have to stop because of the way they will probably use them… We just have to be fundamentally sound, play hard, play fast, be assignment-perfect until we can kind of figure out how they built their system because we haven’t seen all of those guys together yet.”
2. A new-look offense for the Huskies. Like Armstrong and Anae, UConn has its own rekindled quarterback-coordinator relationship after a year apart with Joe Fagnano being named the starter. Nick Charlton, who coached Fagnano for three years as head coach at Maine, has often said his scheme is dependent on personnel. Last year, with a true freshman quarterback stepping in and receivers dropping like flies, that was restricted. The Huskies now feel that they’ve made quality additions at receiver (two transfers at the top of the depth chart along with the return of Cam Ross) and at tight end – where seven different players were listed on the chart – to the point where they can mix things up.
“You’d hope we can be a little bit more diverse. Every week’s a little bit different what you’re trying to emphasize, how teams are playing you, what you’re trying to do to attack that,” Mora said. “I think the fact that we’ve got healthy receivers right now and healthy tight ends, and we’ve got more receivers and tight ends really that we feel are productive players than maybe we’ve had in the past at this point in the season. It’s gonna help us.”
3. Comfortability in Mora’s system to make things easier, faster on defense. UConn players had to adjust to, not only a new head coach, but also a new, unique style of defensive play calling-by-committee last season. Mora will again serve in a defensive coordinator-type role where he has final say, but all of the positional coaches will still be chipping in and offering their thoughts.
“Scheme-wise I think we’ve gotten a chance to really understand the basic stuff and (this year has) given us a chance to add in more wrinkles and nuances into it. So you’ll see a lot of different stuff that you might not have been able to get a chance to see last year,” Mitchell said.
Most of the returners, who make up the majority of the depth chart, were able to generate an understanding of the system as last season went on and then share what they learned with newcomers during the offseason. When training camp began, the Huskies were steps ahead of where they were when Mora first took over.
“There’s a level of comfort that creates a level of confidence because of repetition. The defense, it shouldn’t be complicated. Do your job, play with great technique, set your hair on fire and go to the ball. That’s what we try to do,” Mora said. “We should absolutely be more aggressive because we know what we’re doing. If you play with certainty, and you play with trust, you’re going to play fast and you’re going to make plays. To me, being aggressive means playing fast.”
Site: Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, East Hartford
Line: NC State by 14.5
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network – Ed Cohen, Christian Fauria, Keiana Martin
Radio: UConn Sports Network from Learfield, ESPN 97.9
Online: The Varsity Network App – Mike Crispino, Wayne Norman, Adam Giardino
2022 record: UConn: 6-7, NC State: 8-5
Series: NC State leads 3-0
Last meeting: Sept. 24, 2022 – NC State 41, UConn 10

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