Sunday, December 5, 2010
Here come the Huskies, believe it or not
By Brian Bennett
TAMPA, Fla. -- Lawrence Wilson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He went to Paul Bryant High School, for crying out loud. Yet Wilson couldn't get as much as a head nod from any SEC schools.
Now he's a fifth-year senior linebacker for Connecticut, and maybe the perfect poster boy for these underdog, under-loved Huskies.
Lawrence Wilson returned an interception 55 yards for the Huskies' only touchdown of the game.
Wilson's 55-yard first-half interception return was the only touchdown for UConn on Saturday night, but his team somehow found a way to beat South Florida 19-16 and clinch its first-ever BCS berth.
"Payback is what I call it," Wilson said. "For overlooking me. Now we're going to the BCS. I can't believe it."
Neither, probably, can the rest of the country, or even the rest of the Big East. The Huskies are in just their ninth year of playing at the FBS level and their seventh in a automatic bid conference. What's more, they started this year 3-4 overall and 0-2 in league play before improbably winning their final five games. At 8-4 and never having once been ranked this season, UConn is shockingly BCS-bound.
It is also bound for a month's worth of knocks from critics. None of it will leave a mark.
"People have already said a lot of things about us," quarterback Zach Frazer said. "That's fine. We know we deserve to be here."
Saturday's game showed why a lot of people doubt the Huskies' ability to compete in a BCS bowl.
They managed only 232 total yards against South Florida, which came in with a simple yet effective plan: Stop the UConn running game. Everybody has tried that this year, but most failed. The Bulls overloaded the box all night and practically begged Frazer to beat them over the top.
Yet even with the numbers stacked against the run, star tailback Jordan Todman pounded it 33 times into the crowd. He gained only 93 yards, just the second time this season he has been held under 100 in a game. The longest Connecticut run of the night went for nine yards.
Running it in a phone booth still is usually a more preferable option than throwing it. Frazer, never an accurate passer, completed less than half his attempts (13-of-29) for a paltry 112 yards, the fourth straight game the Huskies have been held under 125 yards passing. You can already envision the headaches an athletic defense like Oklahoma or Virginia Tech will cause with a month to prepare against such a one-dimensional attack.
But Saturday's game also illustrated UConn's strengths: its resiliency and resourcefulness.
The defense came up with a crucial stand after South Florida drove to the 5-yard line in the final two minutes with three chances to take the lead. Frazer completed two key passes after USF's tying field goal to get within kicker Dave Teggart's range.
Special teams proved to be enormous all night. Teggart drilled the 52-yard game-winner with 17 seconds left after making a 50-yarder earlier in the half. Punter Cole Wagner was an unsung hero, averaging 53 yards on six punts in a game of field position. And returner Robbie Frey kept setting up the Huskies in good spots; he got the winning drive started on the UConn 40.
"Football is not about style points; it's about winning and losing," head coach Randy Edsall said. "This is who we are."
Is that identity good enough to merit a BCS game? You bet, Edsall says.
"The bottom line is we won the game and nobody can take anything away from us," he said. "We played by the rules and we won the Big East, so we get the BCS. That's what the rules are, and we're going."
Few would have thought that possible on Oct. 23. The Huskies got blasted 26-0 at Louisville that afternoon, just days after Edsall dismissed starting quarterback Cody Endres for failing a second drug test. Connecticut had lost to Rutgers the week before and was blown out by Michigan and Temple earlier in the year. The season hung in the balance.
"You could see it on everyone's faces -- we were like, 'Where are we going to go and what's going to happen?'" Frazer said. "We could have easily gone down the tank and gone home for Christmas."
But this is a team that learned to battle back from adversity last year, when teammate Jasper Howard was murdered after a midseason game. Following some heartbreaking losses, the players regrouped to win their four games. Edsall is hoping that the Orange Bowl takes the Huskies because Howard, who would have been a senior this year, called Miami home.
Reps in loud blazers from both the Fiesta and Orange bowls checked out the delirious UConn locker room, and perhaps they argued over who should get stuck with the Huskies. This a team that nobody wanted in a BCS game, full of players hardly any big schools wanted, with a style of play nobody wants to watch.
Like it or not, though, the Huskies are going to the BCS. And nobody can overlook them any more.
"We worked for it and we earned it," Wilson said. "We had a hard path, but we proved we're a great team."