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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 67: Connecticut

The Fiesta Bowl was good, but it wasn’t good enough for Randy Edsall. Or it was good at the time, but Edsall must have taken one thing away from his team’s lopsided bowl loss to Oklahoma: this is as good as it’s going to get, thought Edsall, so it’s time to get going while the going’s good. That’s the only way to color his decision to leave town at the height of his fame in Storrs, leaving behind a program that bears his fingerprints from top to bottom, from the F.C.S. to the F.B.S. and all points in between. He’ll be remembered for what he did for the Huskies, but his departure does leave a sour taste in the mouth of a fan base that might have expected the Fiesta Bowl to not be the pinnacle but a launching pad for even greater success in the future.

Conference
Big East

Location
Storrs, Conn.

Nickname
Huskies

Returning starters
15 (6 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 39

2010 record
(8-5, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 43

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Fordham
  • Sept. 10
    at Vanderbilt
  • Sept. 16
    Iowa St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Buffalo
  • Oct. 1
    W. Michigan
  • Oct. 8
    at West Virginia
  • Oct. 15
    South Florida
  • Oct. 26
    at Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 5
    Syracuse
  • Nov. 19
    Louisville
  • Nov. 26
    Rutgers
  • Dec. 3
    at Cincinnati

Last year’s prediction

Matching last season’s win total shouldn’t be a problem. Better yet, UConn lands its three prime rivals for the Big East crown at home: Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Ready for more good news? Check out the 16 returning starters, eight on each side of the ball. So why have UConn here, and not above Pittsburgh and West Virginia — especially with both those teams coming to Storrs? More so than any Big East team that has come before them on the Countdown, however, UConn is a very realistic Big East contender; this team, thanks to its returning talent and nice schedule, could sneak into the back door of the B.C.S. — ahead of its more highly-regarded rivals in Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

2010 recap

In a nutshell This might not have been the best Edsall-coached Connecticut team. This was a team that lost to Michigan, Temple, Rutgers and Louisville, after all, and five games altogether. But this was certainly the most accomplished team in Edsall’s time in Storrs, one that outlasted more high-profile Big East opponents en route to the program’s first F.B.S. conference title and the ensuing B.C.S. bid. That didn’t go so well, putting some egg on Connecticut’s face, but that the Huskies got there at all is a testament to how well Edsall got the most out of his marginally talented teams. As with nearly all his teams, UConn did two things very well: run the ball and play defense. The Huskies finished 34th nationally in rushing – second in the Big East – and ranked 35th in scoring defense, not overwhelming opponents but rather just wearing them down with steady, often turnover-free play on offense and opportunistic play on defense. It was vintage Connecticut football under Edsall.

High point A five-game winning streak to end the regular season turned an underachieving bunch into the Big East champs. A win over U.S.F. in the season finale stands out, mainly because it pushed the Huskies into the Fiesta Bowl. But how UConn won also stands out: the Huskies hit on a 47-yard field goal with less than 20 seconds left to take a 19-16 win.

Low point Losses to Rutgers and Louisville to open Big East play. The losses helped send UConn off to a 3-4 start, 0-2 in conference action. One was close: Rutgers squeaked past with a 27-24 win, scoring 10 points in the final four minutes to land the victory. One was not close: Louisville dominated from start to finish in a 26-0 whitewashing.

Tidbit UConn was the fourth four-loss team to earn a B.C.S. bid, joining Virginia Tech, which went to the 2009 Orange Bowl – after the 2008 season – at 9-4 and beat Cincinnati, 20-7, and Florida State, which went into B.C.S. play in 2003 and 2006 with four losses. A few three-loss teams have earned B.C.S. berths: Illinois, 9-3, went to the 2008 Rose Bowl; Pittsburgh, 8-3, played Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl; Kansas State, 11-3, played Ohio State in 2004 Fiesta Bowl; L.S.U., 9-3, beat Illinois in the 2002 Sugar Bowl; Purdue, 8-3, played Washington in the 2001 Rose Bowl; Stanford, 8-3, lost to Wisconsin in the 2000 Rose Bowl; and Syracuse, 8-3, lost to Florida in the 1999 Orange Bowl.

Tidbit (B.C.S. edition) Here’s an interesting fact: UConn made the quickest transition from the F.C.S. to the B.C.S., if we go by the years between the leap to the F.B.S. to the B.C.S. berth. It took the Huskies only nine years, which is actually pretty incredible, if you stop and think about it. Boise State is second at 11 years, though the Broncos certainly had a smoother ride to the Fiesta Bowl than did Connecticut.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 OT Will Beatty (New York Giants), S Tyvon Branch (Oakland), RB Donald Brown (Indianapolis), LB Cody Brown (New York Jets), CB Darius Butler (New England), WR Marcus Easley (Buffalo), LB Greg Lloyd (Philadelphia), TE Tyler Lorenzen (New Orleans), CB Robert McClain (Carolina), QB Dan Orlovsky (Houston), FB Anthony Sherman (Arizona), OG Donald Thomas (Detroit), RB Jordan Todman (San Diego), LB Lawrence Wilson (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Connecticut ties, with notable work
1. Mark Twain, “Huckleberry Finn.”
2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
3. Arthur Miller, “Death of a Salesman.”
4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
5. Anna Proulx, “The Shipping News.”

Coaching

Paul Pasqualoni (Penn State ’72), entering his first season. Pasqualoni returns to the Big East after six years in the N.F.L., sandwiching a two-year stay as Miami’s defensive coordinator with two separate stints with Dallas. But it’s for his long, successful stay at Syracuse that Pasqualoni is most well-known: he was the Syracuse head coach from 1991-2004 after spending four years as one of Dick MacPherson’s lead assistants. He lead the Orange to nine bowl games, winning or sharing four Big East titles, including one in 2004, his final season with the program. While Doug Marrone has reversed Syracuse’s losing ways, it’s still clear that the university made a woefully poor decision when it released Pasqualoni of his duties after 14 seasons. He concluded his stay with the Orange with 104 wins, second-most in program history, and won 64.4 percent of his games, the most of any Syracuse coach of the modern era. Pasqualoni won nine games for three straight seasons from 1995-97 and won 10 games three times: in 1991 and 1992, his first two years, and again in 2001. This sort of experience is unmatched in the Big East – and matched by only a few other coaches in the F.B.S. – and is clearly Pasqualoni’s most positive attribute. But he has more, including deep, meaningful, long-lasting ties with many of the region’s recruiting hotbeds, which will be of enormous benefit. He shouldn’t have been dismissed from Syracuse in the first place; Connecticut gives Pasqualoni a second chance at rebuilding his reputation. He’s a great fit.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Pasqualoni retained six Connecticut assistants, which is an extremely high number for a first-year coach. It’s almost unheard of, actually, for a new coach not to bring in a brand new coaching staff. The lone new faces are offensive coordinator George DeLeone, a longtime Pasqualoni assistant; defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Don Brown, who came from Maryland; and running backs coach and special teams coordinator Clayton White, who was hired away from Western Kentucky. Among the returning assistants are assistant head coach Hank Hughes, which was a huge get for Pasqualoni, and offensive line coach Mike Foley, one of Edsall’s first assistants.

Players to watch

The offense won’t change much: UConn will still be defined offensively by a powerful running game, as it was under Edsall. The big question, therefore, becomes which running back takes over for the departed Jordan Todman, the second-leading rusher in the F.B.S. a year ago. His replacement looks to be former U.S.C. transfer D.J. Shoemate, who was due to play a major role last fall but quickly found himself in the doghouse after fumbling in the season opener against Michigan.

Is Shoemate a 25-carry back? He doesn’t lack for talent, that we know: you don’t get a U.S.C. offer without being able to make plays, though Shoemate is still very unproven despite being a senior – he had all of two carries with the Trojans and another 28 a year ago. But his 115 yards last fall pace all returning backs on the roster, and Shoemate’s combination of size and speed makes him a far more intriguing option than the backs behind him on the depth chart: sophomores Martin Hyppolite and Jordan Huxtable and freshmen Lyle McCombs, DeShon Fox and Max DeLorenzo.

The Huskies have proven depth at wide receiver, at least. Seniors Mike Smith (46 receptions for 615 yards) and Kashif Moore (36 for 452, 4 scores) again lead the way, as they did a year ago. There’s more – or Moore, rather, in senior Isiah Moore (15 for 147), who moved ahead of Smith on the depth chart heading into the summer. It hurts a bit to lose a talent like would-be junior Dwayne Difton, who arrived in Storrs with much fanfare but never made quite the impact most expected.

The position still looks fine, however, with three seniors pacing the receiver corps and a handful of tall, lanky options making up the second line: redshirt freshman Geremy Davis, sophomore Malik Generett and junior Gerrard Sheppard would fit in that category. Perhaps Nick Williams can translate his superb kick return abilities to the receiver position, though he hasn’t made an impact as yet in the passing game. And the Huskies make great use of their tight ends, juniors Ryan Griffin (31 catches for 245 yards) and John Delahunt. Griffin is the receiving option, as those numbers illustrate, but Delahunt has played a role as a second, blocking tight end.

Three starters return up front: center Moe Petrus, left tackle Mike Ryan and right tackle Adam Masters. Petrus, a second-team all-Big East pick last fall, brings a team-high 39 career starts into 2011. Ryan, a first-team all-conference selection, is the best of the bunch. But there holes at guard, where UConn must replace starters Zach Hurd and Mathieu Oliver. It will be Gary Bardzak on the left side; he moves to guard from center, where he’s made two career starts. The situation is less clear on the right side: sophomore Steve Greene will get the nod, but he’s very inexperienced.

UConn will win games on defense. That’s in part because of an offense that lacks talent, but also thanks to the nine returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. The only group affected by graduation was linebacker, though that position took a big hit with the departure of Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus, two of the Big East’s best. At least the one returning starter is a good one: junior Sio Moore (110 tackles, 11.5 for loss) was overshadowed by the above pair last fall, but he’s ready to take center stage.

The linebacker corps still needs to rebuilt, by and large. It makes sense that Jerome Williams, the second-most experienced returning linebacker, will take on a starting role: he was one of the first off the bench last fall. Another junior, Jory Johnson, is also in the mix, as may be Kijuan Dabney – we’re just waiting to see whether Dabney makes the move to linebacker or remains in the secondary, as he’s bounced around between the two since arriving on campus. At least one redshirt freshman is going to play, if not start: that list includes Yawin Smallwood, Andrew Opoku and Brandon Steg.

The line is good enough to keep the linebackers clean, which will help. It’s a very deep and experienced group, particularly along the interior. Seniors Twyon Martin (30 tackles, 3 sacks) and Kendall Reyes (39 tackles, 10.5 for loss) constitute the Big East’s best tackle duo – especially Reyes, a first-team all-Big East pick in 2010. Sophomore Shamar Stephen is next in line: for now, he’s a very capable third tackle. While the line is defined by its interior pair, the UConn ends are dangerous in their own right. Juniors Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams combined for 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks last fall, with Joseph’s 8.5 sacks leading the team. All in all, this is a very good line, one that’s probably just behind Pittsburgh for the Big East’s best.

The secondary gave up some yards a year ago, but made plays when it mattered: UConn allowed 223.5 yards per game, 66th-most in the country, but intercepted 20 passes, tied for eighth-most in the country. All four starters are back, which is great news for this defense. Think of it this way: the Huskies do have some issues at linebacker, but with a nice pass rush and a strong secondary, I have no doubt that UConn will again have one of the better defenses in the Big East.

Two strong cornerbacks lead the way. Juniors Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz do a nice job sticking their nose into the mix against the run, which helps, but both are all-conference candidates because of their ability to make big plays: Wreh-Wilson made four picks last fall, returning two for scores, and Gratz showed he could do the same in the bowl loss to Oklahoma. Senior Gary Wilburn is the top reserve at cornerback, though sophomores Taylor Mack and Chris Lopes will also play a role. Jerome Junior (59 tackles) and Harris Agbor return at safety; Junior brings 23 career starts into 2011.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Another thing that won’t change between coaching staffs: Pasqualoni, like Edsall, will not ask his quarterback to win game single-handedly – just not lose them. There’s a slight quarterback competition brewing, though it does seem like sophomore Mike Box is the leading contender as UConn looks ahead to fall camp. Yeah, it may just be by default: Box has made 17 career attempts, which is 17 more than his four fellow quarterbacks bring to the table in 2011. So that perhaps gives Box an insurmountable advantage over his competition, though Pasqualoni played his cards close to the vest as UConn closed spring ball. What can we say about the team’s four remaining options? Well, one, Johnny McEntee, can make every throw in the book – and some you can’t find in the book – when not in pads, standing on a ledge, on a  basketball court, in a parking lot, what have you. Then there are three freshmen: Scott Cummings and Blaise Driscoll are coming off redshirt seasons, while Mike Nebrich enrolled a semester early and participated in spring practice. Nebrich is the most intriguing of that bunch, if only because of the mess that ensued during his recruitment when a Boston College coach reached out to the then-high school senior – the horror – after he had given UConn his verbal commitment. With that in the past, let’s look ahead to 2011: this is not a group that instills confidence, but it’s not as if UConn has had great quarterback play for a handful of seasons. It looks like Box is the guy, but let’s see how things play out in August.

Game(s) to watch

The Huskies have four Big East home games, which is big. Unfortunately, the three road games come against the conference’s best – West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – which is not good. UConn can’t repeat without winning at least one of those, of course, and with head-to-head tiebreakers often playing a huge role in the final standings, the Huskies might have to win two of those three.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The Huskies always outplayed their expectations under Edsall, with 2010 only the most recent example of this trait. It was almost like clockwork: UConn would enter the year overlooked, underrated and under-the-radar but would more often than not end ahead of more talented teams in the Big East. Can Pasqualoni have the same impact? There’s no way to know: Pasqualoni was a winner at Syracuse, but whether he can do the same with the Huskies remains to be seen. I think he’ll keep UConn in the conference mix, that’s for sure; whether there’s a B.C.S. bowl in the program’s future is impossible to predict, though the Big East remains open to nearly all comers every season. One thing I do feel safe in predicting: UConn is not going back to the B.C.S. in 2011. I also don’t think UConn is winning another eight games in the regular season, though the Huskies are ahead of Rutgers, Louisville and Syracuse – the latter only slightly – in the conference standings. But there are some major issues, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The quarterback situation is a mess, though it’s important to note that UConn has gotten by without solid quarterback play for years. There are a lack of options at running back, even if Shoemate has talent. The interior of the line needs work, and while there is depth at receiver there is not a tremendous amount of talent. The good news: the defense is definitely good enough to lead UConn back to bowl play. But it won’t be a pretty season, in my mind – a year full of low-scoring, tight wins and losses. I think UConn gets back to bowl play but not by much: at least six wins, perhaps seven, but not in the Big East title picture.

Dream season The Huskies reclaim the Big East crown, adding a win to last year’s total in a 9-3 regular season.

Nightmare season UConn takes a major step back in Pasqualoni’s first season, going from 8-5 to 4-8.

In case you were wondering

Where do Connecticut fans congregate? You can find solid recruiting coverage at The Boneyard and UConn Report. Check out The Uconn Blog for additional coverage, though it’s often very basketball-heavy. Desmond Conner, who covers UConn football for The Hartford Courant, might take umbrage at emails sent from a Boston College address but has his finger on the pulse of the program.

Word Count

Through 54 teams 155,813.

Up Next

Who is No. 66? An academic department at tomorrow’s university houses the largest tsunami simulator in the world.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. HW86 says:

    Oregon State is next

  2. Papa John says:

    Oregon State is next.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    The Beavers of Oregon State…like Paul, I also predict they will take a major nosedive in the coming years…back to 1971-1998 status.

  4. Zaboo says:

    “though the Broncos certainly had a smoother ride to the Fiesta Bowl than did Connecticut.”

    Not so sure there, Paul. Having to go only 8-5 out of the atrocious 2010 Big East is pretty smooth.

  5. JimBob says:

    Huge mistake for Syracuse to dump PP. Glad to see him back in the Big East. Hope he torments his old team.

  6. Alex Payne says:

    OSU

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