It's one thing to struggle against Western Michigan, or even Buffalo. The Huskies have the defense to keep things close and the offense to (in the case of the Broncos) mount a comeback or (in the Bulls game) hold onto a lead. But if UConn struggles early against Rutgers things could end badly.
Obviously, offensive coordinator George DeLeone understands this better than anyone. So what's the plan Saturday when UConn travels to New Jersey to face the 22nd-ranked team in the country?
"This is a hard test for us here," DeLeone told the Hartford Courant's Desmond Conner. "They’re a really good defense. The thing that impresses me is that they are a veteran defense. You put on last year’s film and put on this year’s film the same guys are playing. You’re talking about veteran, experienced, talented players. This may be the best defense they’ve shown up with down there. The thing that impresses me is their experience. ...
"They are too quick," he continued. "They have too many blitzes. They’re third down defense is overly impressive. You’ve got to do something to have balance. That’s No.1; No.2 you also have to keep their offense off the field. They’ve got NFL receivers over there so it’s a formidable task no doubt about it."
Great. So what's the plan?
For starters, the Huskies can't fall behind early. It's one thing to get down by a field goal or a touchdown but anything more than that and things get complicated. (And we're beyond the point of applauding politely for moral victories. This is FBS football; bowl bids aren't based on "shoulda" wins.)
"Any time adversity strikes on the road it's a little bit more difficult to overcome," senior WR Nick Williams said via TheDay.com. "You're in an uncomfortable environment, especially if you're a younger player, so when you're in front of a loud crowd and maybe a hostile crowd that can be difficult."
The good news: not only do the Huskies have 13 players from New Jersey, they have 10 senior starters all accustomed to what it means to play in front of hostile crowds.
"I don't want to say (road wins) should be easier to come by," Williams continued. "But we should be more comfortable on the road because guys have been there ... some for 30-plus times in their career.
"If you look at our starters across the board, the majority have played in road games, so they know what happens in that environment and how to handle themselves. I don't think it will play a factor as much as pure execution and us just going down there and doing our job."
But all the poise in the world won't matter if the Huskies can't execute. That means protecting quarterback Chandler Whitmer, avoiding turnovers, and making plays. And while 40-yard pass completions or 25-yard touchdown runs are nice, we mean the simple stuff: complete the slant route that moves the chains on third down. Get two yards on third-and-1. On defense, get off the field on third down.
See a theme here? Third downs are sort of important. For the Huskies, it could be the difference between winning and losing, and ultimately, going to a bowl or staying home.