Scouting the opponent: Duke football must prepare for Roberson's arm, UConn's diverse rushing attack

Senior safety Jaylen Stinson stiff arms Cade Klubnik in Duke's season opener against Clemson.
Senior safety Jaylen Stinson stiff arms Cade Klubnik in Duke's season opener against Clemson.

After capping off a dominant win against Northwestern last Saturday, Duke hits the road this weekend to face UConn. This is the team’s first away game of the year, having won all three games at home this season so far and rising from unranked to a solid No. 18 — the Blue Devils’ highest mark in nearly 20 years. 

The Huskies, on the other hand, are still trying to get their first win of the season, having lost their last three games against N.C. State, Georgia State and FIU. Although their losses are to teams ranked lower than Duke, if there is one thing we’ve learned about football this season is that unexpected things can happen at unexpected times.

“[We’re] going on to play what is a really talented team,” said Duke head coach Mike Elko at his weekly press conference. “I know the record doesn't say all of that … I think [the Huskies are] very talented on defense, I think their front seven is extremely physical. I think they're athletic.”

So, what should the Blue Devils expect from UConn?

For starters, they should expect the Huskies to run the ball on offense more than they pass it. Junior running back Devontae Houston and sophomore running back Victor Rosa have led the rushing game this year for the Huskies and have both had significant roles in doing so. Rosa paced the Huskies in rushing last year with 636 yards on 140 carries, while Houston was close behind with 578.

Adding to this, UConn lost starting quarterback Joe Fagnano for the season after he sustained a shoulder injury against Georgia State. As a result, junior Ta’Quan Roberson has taken the starting role and has had a difficult time adjusting so far, throwing for only 170 yards during his team’s outing against FIU. However, the Blue Devils shouldn’t discard Roberson as a passing threat; against Georgia State he passed for 216 yards at a 19-of-30 rate and a pair of touchdowns after Fagnano went down. 

“I think offensively, obviously, losing their starting quarterback in the beginning of Week 2 is a challenge,” Elko said. “I think they maybe got out of sync a little bit until about the midway point of last weekend. And I think about the midway point last week, and they started to find a rhythm, put a furious comeback back together and came up just a little bit short at the end.”

Other key players to look out for include Jackson Mitchell, the fifth-year linebacker and Connecticut native who led the nation among true freshmen with 6.5 tackles per game in 2019. Senior defensive lineman Eric Watts was named to the 2023 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List and 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl 1000 this past summer and should be one to watch for Duke’s offensive line. 

Those two players aside, the Huskies have largely been struggling defensively this season. They’ve allowed their opponents to score 27.7 points on average compared to their own average of 15 per game. Notably, the UConn defense has had a hard time covering agile quarterbacks. 

N.C. State’s Brennan Armstrong threw for 155 yards against UConn but ran for a further 96 and a pair of touchdowns. Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger accumulated a staggering 142 rush yards — more than half of his team’s total 250 rush yards that game. Given his shiftiness and agility, Duke signal caller Riley Leonard looks poised to run for a decent amount of yards just as these quarterbacks did against the Huskies’ defense. 

Although the Huskies did fall behind 24-3 against FIU in the first half, their defense stepped up big in the second half, leading to a 14-0 run. UConn won’t go down easy, and especially away from home for the first time this season, the Blue Devils will need to stay on high alert.

“[We] certainly anticipate them come out and give us everything that they have,” Elko said. “They were a bowl team last year, I'm sure they want to be a bowl team again this year, and this is going to be a huge opportunity for them.”


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