If there was ever a team that deserved to play with a chip on its shoulder, it is Connecticut. The Huskies entered the 2008 season with 19 returning starters from the co-Big East championship team that posted a 9-4 record last fall, and were rewarded by being voted sixth in the conference's preseason poll. Head coach Randy Edsall, holding a 55-55 record in his 10th season in Storrs, brings his UConn squad to Chapel Hill with a 5-0 record and the No. 23 ranking (USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll). The Huskies have defeated three BCS programs thus far, with wins over Virginia (45-10), Baylor (31-28) and Louisville (26-21), and have won three games by five points or less.
"They've got one of the great running backs in the country, leading the nation with over 180 yards [per game]. That's going to be a tremendous challenge for our defense to do a much better job of defending the run and being in the right situations as compared to last week" – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"Tyler [Lorenzen] had surgery [on Sunday], and that went well. He's probably going to be out six to eight weeks." – UConn head coach Randy Edsall on the status of his starting quarterback
"We're definitely going to have to start faster this game than we did against Miami. They have a very talented running back. If we jump out late on them, it might be too late with their style of play." – UNC safety Trimane Goddard
"I thought Zach [Frazer] came in and handled himself really well once he got into the flow of the game. He started to throw the ball much better. We expect him to go in and play well." – Edsall on his backup quarterback following the Louisville victory
Donald Brown was a relative unknown on the recruiting scene during his days at New Jersey's Red Bank Catholic High School. Despite rushing for a school-record 2,032 yards and 27 touchdowns in his senior season, as well as earning regional honors in the long jump and the 400 meters in track, the big dogs of college football were not sold on the then-5-foot-10, 190-pounder.
Their loss has been Connecticut's gain.
"We wanted him as a running back right from the very beginning," Edsall told the New York Times earlier this month. "I saw a young man on film that had power, had speed, was a guy that could do the things that we thought in our offense would be very good."
Brown, who has bulked up to 210 pounds since high school, entered the 2008 season with 331 career rushes for 1,717 yards with 15 touchdowns. But still, he remained under the radar from the national press – until now.
The red-shirt junior currently leads the nation with a 181.2 yards per game average, including 11 touchdowns and a 6.21 yards per carry mark. Brown gained 190 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries last Friday against Louisville. He totaled 124 of those yards in the first half, marking the fifth straight game that he has eclipsed the 100-yard barrier in the first 30 minutes of play.
"He's got great vision," Davis said on Monday. "You can just see his ability. Like all great running backs, he can visually see where everybody is. You'll see him make cuts. ... The other thing that is very apparent is he has outstanding balance. You see guys hit him on the thighs, you see guys hit him on his legs and they don't knock him down. He is a very talented running back."
Edsall referred to Brown as "playing like a man possessed" following the Baylor victory two weeks ago, and with Lorenzen out for Saturday's contest with the Tar Heels, the Huskies' star running back will be called upon to carry an even bigger load in Kenan Stadium.
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Cameron Sexton vs. UConn's Defense
Most North Carolina fans were anxious last week to see how Mike Paulus would fare in his first collegiate start. Now, those same individuals are eager for Cameron Sexton's encore performance following Saturday's come-from-behind victory at Miami.
Sexton completed 11-of-19 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to Brooks Foster with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The red-shirt junior only took 40 percent of the snaps last week during practice, and Davis indicated on Monday that Sexton would get the other 60 percent this week as the starter.
But in his first start in nearly two years, Sexton will face a disciplined, yet attacking, defense from Storrs. The Huskies key defensive statistics all rank in the top-50 nationally – total defense (314.4 ypg, 37th), run defense (125.8 ypg, 49th), pass defense (188.6 ypg, 43rd), pass efficiency defense (107.7, 34th), sacks (2.4, 28th) and tackles for loss (6.4, 33rd).
"They are a very aggressive on defense ... that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Davis said. They've got a fast, athletic defensive line – guys that can really get after the quarterback."
But while Connecticut is tough defensively, it's worth noting that Louisville rolled up 508 yards of total offense. Two different Cardinal running backs gained 100 yards on the ground, and Louisville had the ball inside the UConn 30-yard line seven times.
The Huskies will attempt to force Sexton into bad decisions with varying degrees of pressure, but offensive coordinator John Shoop excelled in South Florida by moving his quarterbacks around to avoid Miami's blitzes. The red-shirt junior's stoic composure will once again be his best ally on Saturday night.
UConn's Zach Frazer vs. UNC's Pass Defense
If you were wondering why North Carolina is considered an early touchdown favorite over the 23rd-ranked team in the nation that is currently 5-0, the answer is that Connecticut starting quarterback Tyler Lorenzen broke his right foot during last Friday's win over Lousville, and is expected to miss six to eight weeks after surgery on Sunday.
The Huskies were able to still defeat the Cardinals, however, thanks to the play of backup quarterback Zach Frazer. Scout.com ranked red-shirt sophomore as the 9th-best quarterback in the nation coming out of high school in 2006 before signing with Notre Dame.
In his first collegiate experience, Frazer played well in a hostile environment, completing 8-of-15 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. His first scoring drive was a 9-play, 72-yard possession that cut Louisville's lead to 21-17, and later in the fourth quarter, the sophomore directed a 15-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in a field goal – impressive numbers against a Cardinal defense that ranks 13th nationally (252.0 yards per game) and that has already faced three BCS programs in its first four games.
"[Frazer] showed the poise," Edsall said during his postgame press conference. "I had made the decision to say he's our No. 2, because I saw him back with the competitive spirit and feistiness that I saw early in camp [before a concussion]. He was calm tonight. He was a great leader on the sidelines. He's a guy that really wants it. I'm very proud of him."
North Carolina's No. 1 defensive priority will be limiting Brown's success on the ground, which means the pass defense (55th nationally, 199.25 ypg) will have to avoid making Frazer the hero through the air.
The Tar Heels have struggled in the sack department (T-81st, 1.25 per game), but they have been able to put pressure on their opposing quarterbacks, thanks to the emergence of red-shirt freshman defensive tackle Tydreke Powell (4.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack) and true freshmen Robert Quinn (3.0 tfl, 1.0 sacks, 2.0 quarterback hits) and Quinton Coples (1.5 tfl, 0.5 sacks). That's one of the reasons North Carolina ranks fourth nationally in interceptions.
* The Tar Heels and Huskies are meeting for just the second time and the first time since UConn joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2002. Carolina will play at Connecticut in 2009 to complete the home-and-home series.
* In non-conference road affairs since 2002, Connecticut has posted a mark of 12-8 and has won four of its last five such games, including this season's win against Temple.
* The Huskies have won eight of their last nine non-league games overall with the only blemish coming via a one-point loss at Virginia (17-16) in 2007.
* In 1990, North Carolina defeated UConn, 48-21, in Kenan Stadium. That game featured three current members of the UNC athletic department - linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen, associate athletic director for football Corey Holliday and associate athletic director for tickets Clint Gwaltney.