Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hope Has Returned to UConn Football. Will Winning?

On Friday night, ESPN will televise a college football game between two teams that have yet to beat an FBS team in 2014. For most of the country, this is cause for outrage. For me, this is cause for unbridled excitement and unabashed anticipation.

Yes, UConn will play USF in football Friday night. And I cannot wait. For the first time since Randy Edsall left, there is actual, honest-to-goodness momentum around the UConn football program.

Stop laughing. Right now. I’m serious.

When I first called for Paul Pasqualoni to be fired shortly into his second season, it was due to the crippling apathy that had overwhelmed Rentschler Field. It continued in 2013, most notably at the Michigan game, when my Section 231 could never wrap our heads around UConn leading the ranked Wolverines. We waited for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, it did.

As the reporters covering UConn deliver competing theories about empty seats – as if it is some great mystery a team with 3 straight losing seasons can’t sell tickets – they are missing a great story. It’s the problem with the press box as you don’t get a feel for what’s actually happening.

In week 1, UConn played a Top 25 BYU team and lost pretty badly. Despite the obvious disparity in talent and experience, the crowd rallied around the Huskies. When Josh Marriner dove in from a yard out to make it 21-7, our section exploded with the same fury as back in 2009 when we beat USF.

Hope is a powerful, if very strange thing.

The performance against Stony Brook is best to be forgotten but it was a win in September – a feat that eluded UConn a year ago – and there were promising signs. There is talent on the field, if young talent. The team plays hard. The team believes. The team thought they could beat Boise State last week.

After three quarters, UConn was down 24-21 and was actually outplaying the heavily favored Broncos. For the first time in four years, there was a palpable sense that UConn could win the game. It is remarkable how the game slipped away just like that Michigan game, with Chandler Whitmer throwing an ill-timed interception.

In 2013, the crowd expected it. In 2014, the crowd was surprised it happened.

If you’re not a UConn football fan, you are likely reading this with befuddled look my dog gives me when a treat isn’t coming her way. “What do you mean?” she asks.

It is impossible to explain to an outsider – to someone who hasn’t sat in the emptying upper deck for three painful years – how toxic the culture around the program had become. People stopped going to games. People stopped buying season tickets. People threw in the towel.

That doesn’t mean they left the program entirely. They were waiting for a sign of momentum. They were hoping to see a spark that would give them pause about staying home. We may look back at Boise State as that moment. I saw multiple UConn players tweet their thanks to fans being loud. Even those covering Boise State felt it:



Before the season, many looked at the UConn schedule and saw six possible wins. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Bahamas on Christmas Eve or Detroit on a random Friday afternoon, a successful season for UConn means playing in any bowl game this year.

On Friday night, UConn travels to USF and plays a team that just lost by 32 at home to N.C. State. The week prior, USF became the first FBS team in three years to lose a game while being +5 in the turnover margin. It is the definition of a winnable game.

The AAC scheduling gods obliged further by providing Temple at home on Sept. 27 – that’s two eminently winnable games in a row. Of course, UConn could just as easily lose both. That’s thing with hope: it gets you through the day but it doesn’t win the day.

We still don’t know if UConn has what it takes to get to six wins. We don’t know if the young talent can grow up quick enough. We don’t know if the offensive line can figure it out. We don’t know if the defense can keep playing at such a high level.

All we know is that UConn outplayed Boise State for three quarters. That’s a step in the right direction. The hope is they take another step forward Friday night. 

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