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2011 Fiesta Bowl Preview: Can UConn Keep Up with Sooners' Weapons?

DeMarco Murray

We've already broken down the motivation factors at play in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl matchup between the Connecticut Huskies and Oklahoma Sooners, as well as the battles when UConn has the ball.

With the game approximately 48 hours away, let's analyze the key factors in the matchup between the OU offense and UConn defense. (Check in tomorrow for Homerism's official prediction.)

When the Sooners are on offense, pay attention to...

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1. Josh Heupel's Maiden Voyage

Josh HeupelKevin Wilson has handed over play-calling responsibilities to Heupel, who's ready to chart his own course for the Sooner offense. As far as Saturday night goes, no one expects much to change in terms of the looks OU gives UConn.

However, as a former quarterback who played under Air Raid proponents Mike Leach and Mark Mangino, concerns abound that the Sooners could start to skew too heavily to the pass under Heupel. Wilson already faced plenty of criticism from Monday morning quarterbacks for abandoning the run game too quickly. Heupel will no doubt get that treatment at some point in his tenure - probably far sooner than later - and only time will tell if it's fair.

The balance between run and pass calls versus the Huskies could be telling, particularly on first down.

2. Mossis Madu's Handles

With Roy Finch sidelined following ankle surgery, Madu should see an increased workload in his last game for OU. The senior from Norman was getting far more action earlier in the year before before his propensity for putting the ball on the ground and Finch's emergence sent Madu to the sidelines.

UConn's opportunistic defense generated 29 turnovers in 12 games. Given the apparent talent gap between the two teams, you have to think Randy Edsall will be coaching his team to go for strips in an effort to get some momentum-changing fumbles. That should put Madu on high alert.

3. OU's Timing

Conventional wisdom is that teams that rely on the pass as much as OU tend to struggle in bowl games. With all the moving parts involved in the passing game, it stands to reason that pass-heavy offenses are more likely to be out of sync than running teams.

4. Tempo

When the Sooners' no-huddle offense is really moving, few teams get to the line as quickly. That kind of tempo can cause opponents fits and is nearly impossible to emulate in practice. Plus, it makes it nearly impossible for defenses to switch up personnel packages based on down and distance.

Much like preparing for the triple option, stopping that kind of offense requires significant adjustments and special preparation. None of Connecticut's opponents this season have played at that kind of pace.

5. Pressuring the Passer

Jesse JosephLandry Jones' pocket presence has improved as the year has progressed. His composure in the face of the pass rush still sticks out as one the quarterback's weak points, though.

According to our friend and UConn experty Aaron Torres, the Huskies run a relatively vanilla defense that focuses more on solid fundamentals than deception and exotic blitzes. That may account for UConn's meager sack total this year (27).

The guy to watch for UConn is Canadian Jesse Joseph, a sophomore defensive end who led the Huskies with 7.5 sacks on the year. Left tackle Donald Stephenson will draw the assignment of keeping Joseph at bay.

Who Has the Edge?

Frankly, there's no better word to describe the UConn D than "solid." The Huskies rank somewhere between about 25th and 50th nationally in the major defensive categories.

They don't do anything exceedingly well, but they don't have any glaring flaws, either.

One thing that can definitely be said is that Connecticut's defense showed clear progress throughout the year. In their final five games, all of which were wins over Big East teams, the Huskies surrendered an average of 14 points per game. That was down from an average of 25 in the first seven games of the season.

But has UConn's D improved enough to slow down a Sooner offense that put up 36.4 points per game?

Given the inconsistency of OU's ground game, Edsall probably won't have to cheat up his safeties to help the front seven against the run. Likewise, UConn's defensive line may be able give OU some problems at the line of scrimmage, meaning that the Huskies can drop men back into coverage to cut off passing lanes and help against the Sooners' explosive receiving corps.

The 'Stache has been known to throw the inexplicable interception from time to time, so he may give UConn's opportunistic ball hawks a few opportunities to cash in, or at least put the offense in advantageous position to do so.

Yet, at the end of the day, the Huskies haven't seen a team with the kind of weapons that OU boasts at the skill spots. It takes plenty of athleticism all over the field to keep up with OU. As well coached as the UConn D is, the Huskies don't have the horses to keep up with Ryan Broyles, DeMarco Murray and the rest of the Sooners' offensive threats.

UConn may be able to keep the Sooners in check for a half, but eventually the dam will break.

Advantage: Sooners.