A .500 record is fine, but a winning season is better and Jim Mora and UConn football team are looking to make that happen at Army

Earning win No. 6 and clinching bowl eligibility in hard-fought fashion over a ranked team, fans storming the field on Senior Day, it was a storybook finish to the UConn football team’s final home game in 2022.

There were tears and “I love yous” shared among players, but, after coach Jim Mora soaked in his green Gatorade bath from Ian Swenson and displayed some dance moves inside the locker room, his attention turned to the next one – the program’s chance for a seventh win for the first time since 2010.

“I played in NFC Championship games, Pac-12 Championship games, I got fired when I won six games the last time I coached,” Mora said. “It’s an accomplishment for this program and we’re moving in the right direction, but I’m not gonna get excited about it. (I’ve got) much larger goals for this program and myself than winning six games.”

Win No. 7 would guarantee a winning season for the Huskies, and would up their chances as an independent program for an at-large bid into a bowl game.

“No one’s crazy in the facility, we all know what’s on the line here,” true freshman quarterback Zion Turner said, reiterating Mora’s words that “we didn’t win six games to not win seven.”

The test will be tough, a new challenge for Mora who, in his 31st season as a football coach, has never seen an offense quite like Army’s. The Black Knights have the second-best running game in the nation (299.4 yards per game) behind their famous triple-option scheme.

“It’s a huge challenge. They’re gonna get their yards rushing, it’s Army,” Mora said. “They’re so efficient and so detailed and they do such an amazing job with what they do well. They’re the epitome of putting their players in the positions to make plays and do what they do best; it’s unparalleled.”

UConn will have its hands full. Army runs until it puts the defensive secondary to sleep, and then will throw over the top for chunk plays, catching the defense off guard.

Last year’s Huskies lost to Army, 52-21, but with a new team under a new leader, inspired by Mora’s ‘Husky Revolution,’ the only motivation the UConn program needs comes from within itself.

“We gotta finish off the season the right way,” Turner said. “We’re winners. We’re definitely not losers or average – 6-6 is average, we’re not average.”

Site: Michie Stadium, West Point, N.Y.

Line: Army by 10.

Time: Noon

Weather: Sunny, 38 degrees

TV/Streaming: CBS Sports Network — Jason Knapp, Ross Tucker, Tina Cervasio

Radio: UConn Sports Network from Learfield, ESPN 97.9

Online: The Varsity Network App — Mike Crispino, Wayne Norman, Adam Giardino

Current record (2021 result): UConn: 6-5 (1-11), Army: 3-6 (9-4, won Armed Forces Bowl over Missouri)

Series: UConn leads 5-3

Last matchup: Sept. 18, 2021 – Army 52, UConn 21 at West Point

Three keys to a UConn win

1. Maintaining possessions: With the way Army runs the ball, the Black Knights have averaged the 25th-most possession time (32 minutes per game) in the FBS this season despite several relatively lackluster performances. UConn, 50th in the statistic, will need to avoid three-and-outs and keep the ball moving down the field to have a chance.

“We’re gonna need to try to and keep them out of the end zone and try to not let them hog the ball all game,” Mora said. “We can’t send them right back onto the field, we have to maximize possessions and do the best we can to not let them score points.”

The Huskies have struggled at times converting on third down, their 47% conversion rate is No. 83 in the FBS, but recently, with the continued emergence of Robert Burns as a powerful ball carrier, short-yardage conversions have been promising. UConn should have more weapons available for Turner out wide in terms of a potential larger role for receiver Keelan Marion, who has been clawing to return since breaking his collarbone in the season-opener and spraining his ankle once he returned.

“Every possession that we get in this game is definitely gonna be important,” Turner said. “We have to take advantage of every opportunity we get with the ball because there might not be many. Turnovers are definitely a big thing of emphasis, we cannot have turnovers this game, that’s something that’s been getting talked about all practice. Third downs, converting, just keeping the ball out of their offense’s hands, just as they want to do to us.”

2. Stay focused defensively and force turnovers: Army hasn’t turned the ball over much this season, just 13 times (nine fumbles, four interceptions), but the UConn defense has been on a roll forcing 20 takeaways – good for 14th in the FBS. As far as getting the Husky offense as many chances as possible, turnovers are an obvious answer.

UConn’s run defense has been near the middle of the pack among the rest of the FBS, allowing an average of 152.4 yards on the ground. The defensive front seven, led by star linebacker Jackson Mitchell, will be key in forcing the Black Knights off the field.

“This defense went through a major transition when Lou Spanos left,” Mora, who’s been the play caller, said. “We changed a lot, so there was a learning curve. I think what we’ve seen out of our defense is they’re playing with a high degree of effort. When you play with a high degree of effort, you get to the right place at the right time and you have a chance to make those plays when the other team makes a mistake. I think that’s what it is more than anything – it’s not luck, it’s not just happenstance, it’s effort.”

Last year’s game against Army was UConn defensive back Malik Dixon-Williams’ first college contest. He made 11 tackles that game in the secondary, which remains his career high.

“I’ve been telling everybody it was definitely tough,” he said. “In this game you have to be the most disciplined ever. I had a ball caught on me so I’m definitely gonna take that into consideration, just make me lock in a little bit harder this game.”

Army has completed 38 of 86 passes on the season for an average of 9.6 yards per completion.

3. Score touchdowns in the red zone: Though UConn has scored on 26 of 29 trips into the red zone this season, which ranks No. 29 nationally, just 18 of those trips have resulted in touchdowns. Against Army, where every possession matters, the Huskies will have to fix the problems (penalties, negative plays) that have led to drives stalling.

“The real measure of your red zone success is your red zone touchdown percentage,” Mora said, “and that has not been real good. We’ve worked hard on it, it’s Nick (Charlton) expanding the playbook a little bit for these guys, it’s these players becoming more efficient running the plays that we play and having a better understanding of it. It’s just something that we have to just continue to put emphasis on.”

Mora added, “It’s nice to have Noe (Ruelas) when we do get down there and it is fourth down and have the ability to put the kicker out there that we know can put it through the uprights. We’re always looking for the touchdowns, we don’t want to celebrate field goals, but if we have to, if we must, we have a good kicker that can kick the field goals.”