Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Nobody had a better season last year than Connecticut's Donald Brown. The Big East's offensive player of the year led the nation in rushing with more than 2,000 yards and parlayed that into becoming a first-round NFL draft pick in April.
So how could the Huskies possibly replace Brown? Well, it's taken two players to pick up the slack. But so far, Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman have made sure that UConn's rushing production has stayed at a high level. Check out the numbers from the first four games of last year versus this year:
Brown had two 200-yard days in his first four games last year; this season, Dixon and Todman have each gone over the 100-yard mark in the same game twice. UConn is second in the Big East in rushing offense, trailing only West Virginia.
"It's amazing," said Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, who will have to find a way to slow the Huskies' runners down on Saturday at Heinz Field. "They do a great job of coaching and scheming. They create gaps and they work leverage real well. They do a lot of check-with-me stuff at the line and know what you're doing with your coverage.
"They do a very good job taking care of the details and determining which direction they're going to run and what running plays they're going to run. And that's why they're so effective."
Brown had a terrific blend of speed, strength and balance and was incredibly durable. But it's clear that no one person makes this running game go. The Huskies have been strong with the ground game now for several years thanks to an underrated offensive line, the work of assistant coaches like Terry Richardson (running backs) and Mike Foley (offensive line) and a dedication to the cause. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the rushing success is that UConn has not had a high-powered passing game to keep defenses off balance.
"It's something we take a lot of pride in," head coach Randy Edsall said. "Running the football is a very, very important part of being a physical, tough-minded football team."
Brown never really needed a rest last year, but that's unusual in a long season. Todman and Dixon have split carries and production almost completely evenly; Todman has 80 attempts and 396 yards, while Dixon has touted it 74 times for 368 yards.
"Andre is more of a slasher, while Jordan is a little bit shiftier," Edsall said. "They complement each other well, because they both can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. What we're doing with those guys is best for them and also for what we want to do as a team."
Dixon was the team's leading rusher two years ago, then fell out of favor last season and got very few opportunities behind Brown. Despite that, Edsall said he has emerged as the team's best leader this season.
"I'm as proud of him as I am of anybody," he said.
Todman showed flashes of his ability as an occasional change-of-pace back during his freshman year. The Huskies also have a sophomore, Robbie Frey, who ripped off a 69-yard run earlier this season and could be a key contributor if needed.
The names may change, and even NFL draft picks might come and go, but UConn will seemingly always be able to run the ball.
"Even when you look in the past, when a running back went down or a guy took somebody's spot, you always saw that guy could step up," Dixon said. "That's what we've built here, and I think it's great for the program."