- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Officially, Connecticut played Notre Dame in its 10th game of the season last year. Unofficially, it felt different.
"Every game was about Notre Dame last year," senior linebacker Scott Lutrus said. "Whether it was the first week, the second week -- before we even got to that game, all the talk was about playing Notre Dame."
Squaring off against some of the titans of college football -- and having a chance to beat them -- still ranks as relatively new business for the Huskies, who have been playing at the FBS level for less than a decade. But it's starting to become the norm, and Saturday's opener at Michigan offers the program a chance to take another step.
Connecticut has shown it can beat teams with rich traditions. The Huskies took down Notre Dame in an emotional, double-overtime classic and defeated South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl, arguably the two biggest wins in school history.
"Those games showed the nation we can put together a complete game," offensive lineman Zach Hurd said. "Notre Dame is Notre Dame, but it doesn't matter if we play our game. Against South Carolina, we ran all over them and passed all over them."
UConn will not be intimidated by Michigan's winged helmets or even the nearly 110,000 fans expected in the renovated Big House on Saturday. This is a team with 16 returning starters, with depth on both sides of the ball and a close-knit bond formed while dealing with the murder of teammate Jasper Howard last year.
"It all comes down to experience," Hurd said. "We're not going to be shell-shocked when we walk in there, even though it's a big-time environment."
The Huskies know exactly what to expect from the Wolverines. They just have to figure out how to stop it.
When Rich Rodriguez coached West Virginia, he owned UConn. In four meetings, his Mountaineers won by 12, 32, 26 and 45 points. Their speed always caused Randy Edsall's team fits, and Rodriguez will be looking to exploit the same advantage Saturday.
"They run a lot of the same plays and have similar athletes as West Virginia did," said Lutrus, who played in the 2007 game that Rodriguez's team won 66-21. "Denard Robinson is quick and fast just like Pat White. We've seen it before, but the thing is we've never beaten West Virginia and we've never beaten Rich Rodriguez. Hopefully, we'll make that happen."
For the first time ever, a lot of people -- including yours truly -- think the Huskies can and will beat a Rodriguez team. UConn is a trendy pick to win the Big East and make some national noise after it closed last season with four straight wins. A victory on Saturday, even against a Michigan program that is 8-16 the last two years, would still rate as one of the most important in Edsall's tenure and could likely vault the team into Top 25 status. A manageable schedule means the Huskies could start 5-0 heading into Big East play if they can get the first one.
Edsall acknowledged Tuesday that in every neighborhood and town he visits throughout his state, optimism for Huskies football is at an all-time high. Still, he's downplaying the opener as "just one of 12" and said UConn prepared the same way for this game as it has for the beginning of every season.
"The name might say Michigan, but you've still got to go out and play the game," he said.
The biggest change for Connecticut might be that playing a team like Michigan no longer registers as all that big of a deal.
Officially, Connecticut played Notre Dame in its 10th game of the season last year. Unofficially, it felt different."Every game was about Notre Dame last year," senior linebacker Scott Lutrus said.