Thursday, December 17, 2009
South Carolina-Connecticut Preview
Following a regular season marred by tragedy, Connecticut will get one more opportunity to win in honor of a slain teammate.
With the memory of Jasper Howard still prevalent, the Huskies meet South Carolina for the first time Jan. 2 at the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
The Huskies' season changed Oct. 18 when Howard, a starting cornerback and expectant father, was stabbed to death during a fight outside a school-sponsored dance.
Hours earlier, Howard starred in a 38-25 victory over Louisville. He had a career-high 11 tackles and forced a fumble just as the Cardinals threatened to score with the Huskies leading 21-13 in the third quarter.
Eight people have been arrested in connection with the stabbing.
After Howard's burial, Connecticut (7-5) posted three straight close losses -- two were against ranked foes West Virginia and Cincinnati -- before a late surge. Following victories at Notre Dame and home against Syracuse, the Huskies closed the regular season Dec. 5 by beating South Florida 29-27 on Dave Teggart's 42-yard field goal as time expired.
"I think the win (over Notre Dame) gave us confidence and more momentum for Syracuse and then gave us the momentum going into South Florida," coach Randy Edsall said. "Coming back there at the end (against South Florida) ... that was just the resiliency and resolve of kids never quitting during the year. They knew how to overcome adversity with everything else they'd been in."
Having one of the best running-back tandems in the nation has helped. Jordan Todman (1,201 yards) was second in the Big East with 14 rushing touchdowns, one more than Andre Dixon (988 yards).
Connecticut likely needs that ground game to continue its solid production because the passing game is less than stellar. Zach Frazer, who only regained the starting job when Cody Endres suffered a season-ending knee injury in October, has completed only 54.3 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions in seven games.
Edsall, who reportedly was briefly considered to take over for the fired Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, will lead Connecticut into its third straight bowl and fourth since 2004. The Huskies defeated Buffalo in the 2008 International Bowl, and Edsall knows this one holds a more special meaning.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for our program and most especially for our players in terms of what they had to overcome this year," he said. "I think it says a lot about the character and the type of young men we have in this program."
South Carolina (7-5) didn't have to endure the tragedy the Huskies did, instead having to battle inconsistency.
After a 6-2 start, including an upset of then-No. 4 Mississippi in late September, the Gamecocks lost by double digits to Tennessee, Arkansas and former No. 1 Florida before closing the season with a 34-17 win over then-No. 15 Clemson on Nov. 28.
South Carolina finished tied with Kentucky for fourth in the SEC East, and its 261 points were second-fewest in the division ahead of last-place Vanderbilt.
Still, coach Steve Spurrier was pleased his team was invited to go to Legion Field, where he has some history. The 1966 Heisman Trophy winner played there while in the USFL in the 1980s, and guided Florida to SEC title games there in 1992 and 1993.
"We're fired up to be here," he said. "We're probably a lot like (UConn). We have a bunch of young guys who are looking forward to trying to improve this month and trying to play our very best Jan. 2."
One of those young guys is quarterback Stephen Garcia, who enjoyed a breakout season under Spurrier. He finished second in the conference with 2,733 passing yards -- ahead of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida, Greg McElroy of Alabama and one-time Heisman hopeful Jevan Snead of Mississippi.
Garcia threw 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 12 games. Sharing time last season with Chris Smelley, Garcia appeared in eight games, throwing for 832 yards with six TDs and eight picks.
"Stephen has improved a lot. He's improved tremendously from where he was last year," Spurrier said. "He's played about every snap the whole year, so he's durable, and he's improved a lot. He really has come a long way."
One of Garcia's favorite targets is freshman wideout Alshon Jeffery, who leads the team with 43 receptions for 735 yards and six TDs.
South Carolina will have to continue relying on Garcia to generate most of the offense since it ranked last in the SEC with 1,860 rushing yards.
The Gamecocks have alternated wins and losses in three postseason games since Spurrier took over in 2005, and are coming off a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the 2008 Outback Bowl.