Maryland linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (51) sacks Connecticut quarterback Chandler Whitmer (10) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Rentschler Field, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013.
Less than three years ago, the Connecticut football team earned a BCS bowl bid and attempted to carry the flag of the Big East Conference.
After the Huskies represented the Big East in the Fiesta Bowl in January of 2011 — less than four months after a 30-10 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor — the Huskies faced a crossroads as a program. The 2010 season and the appearance in a BCS bowl could have been a springboard for UConn to seize more prominence, even in the wake of a blowout loss to Oklahoma.
Instead, UConn veered in the opposite direction, the byproduct of a storm of factors, including the departure of the coach who had the most FBS success at UConn and the uncertainty that surrounded UConn’s future conference affiliation.
“The shining moment for the program became such a dark one,” said Charles Davis, a former college and NFL safety who is the lead analyst for Fox College Football. “UConn was not seen as someone everyone had to have. When the music stopped playing, UConn was left where they were. Everyone moved on.
“UConn didn’t have enough of a football history to be attractive. And it wasn’t that long ago when many people thought Connecticut would give Michigan a game. At the time, it was the trendy game.”
Three years after the first meeting between the two teams in Ann Arbor, Connecticut (0-2) will host the No. 15 Wolverines (2-0) on Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., the second half of a home-and-home agreement with Michigan.
While the Wolverines play a week after a near-upset by Akron, Connecticut looks for its first win of the season. The Huskies lost 32-21 to Maryland on Saturday, two weeks after losing to another Maryland team — FCS opponent Towson, which handed the Huskies a 33-18 loss at home.
“That was very, very disappointing,” Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni told reporters after the loss to Towson, which is ranked No. 3 in the FCS Coaches Poll. “We didn’t play well there. I don’t know of an area where we did play well in.”
Plenty has changed in three years for the Huskies, who became a provisional FBS program in 1999 and joined the Big East as a football member in 2004. Connecticut won a share of two Big East titles in 2007 and 2010 and earned the the Big East’s 2010 BCS bid and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl by virtue of a tiebreaker, having defeated West Virginia and Pittsburgh that season.
Yet since the end of that season, which included Connecticut’s first game against Michigan, the Huskies went 5-7 in 2011 and 2012. Randy Edsall, who led the Huskies to the bulk of their success as an FBS program, is now in his third season at Maryland.
Edsall’s departure was widely chronicled; instead of flying back to New England after the Fiesta Bowl, Edsall was en route to Maryland to interview for its opening, and many of UConn’s players learned of his departure from either secondhand or thirdhand sources — fallout that Edsall said last year he regretted.
“There were a number of factors,” Davis said. “Randy Edsall became the face of the program. When Randy was there, there was an attraction. Skip Holtz had done a great job of building the program [at the FCS level] and Randy took a run with it.
“The year they won the Big East, it wasn’t exactly a banner year for the conference. They weren’t prepared for that. They got it, you congratulated them, and then they go to the Fiesta Bowl and it looked like they didn’t belong there. They didn’t look like the part, but they’d gotten the fruits of it.”
Those fruits didn’t thoroughly sustain Connecticut’s football program. Connecticut is now a member of the American Athletic Conference, which was rebranded after the Big East became a basketball-centric conference, and is in search of its first football win of the season — and for a new banner to carry.
“We’ve got to rise up and get ready for this game,” Pasqualoni said of facing Michigan. “Where we are, from a nonconference standpoint, the idea of bringing in high-level Big Ten opponents, Southeastern Conference opponents, Big 12 opponents, ACC opponents, I think from our program and from a recruiting standpoint and from an excitement standpoint, and from the notion of you come to UConn you have a chance to compete against the best and be the best, that’s important.”
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