Despite winning 18 games dating back to the 2007 season, the Huskies have had to fight and claw their way to any morsel of respect that they could find. Eleventh-year head coach Randy Edsall's program is not flashing by any means, but his squad is efficient and focuses on the tried-and-true method of combining a solid rushing attack with a stingy defense. Connecticut was recently picked sixth in the Big East preseason media poll, a selection that weighed heavily on the fact that Donald Brown and 2,083 rushing yards bolted for the NFL, joining first-team All Big East performers in DE Cody Brown and CB Darius Butler.
The defense returns four of its top five tacklers from a unit that allowed just 278.0 yards (6th nationally) and 19.8 points (22nd) per contest in '08, and that group was up to its old tricks in last Saturday's 23-16 win over Ohio, holding its opponent to 247 total yards. Replacing Brown and starting quarterback Tyler Lorenzen appear to be the bigger concerns, although junior quarterback Zach Frazer (46-of-83 passing, 536 yards, 2 TD, 6 INT in ‘08) started two games last fall and running backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon provide a formidable duo at running back.
The Huskies are looking to avoid a repeat of last season's 38-12 debacle of a loss in Chapel Hill, highlighted by Bruce Carter's three consecutive blocked punts. UConn has posted an 11-2 record at home over the past two seasons.
"We have a tough one this week. North Carolina is an outstanding football team that is ranked in the top-25 in the country. They are a team that is well balanced offensively, very physical and runs to the ball extremely well on defense and have a sound, solid kicking game. Again, it is going to be a tremendous challenge for us on Saturday but we are looking forward to the opportunity to go out and continue the season, work to get better and improve on where we were last Saturday. Right now we are the best that we can be at, 1-0, and now we are working hard to try and make sure we can get to 2-0." -- UConn head coach Randy Edsall
"The defense has definitely noticed that the tempo of the offense has worn us down a few times in practice and scrimmages. This season what they are going to do to the opponents is really tire out the defense with tempo, the no huddle offense, just running at them. It will definitely wear them down. We haven't gone four quarters against them in scrimmages but we have definitely been tired at the half." – UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus on the Huskies' no-huddle offense
"We miss a 42-yard field goal, four turnovers, we had a holding penalty on first down, we had wide-open receivers and we couldn't hit them, we had a second-and-one and gave up a sack when we were moving." -- Edsall on the problems his team had against Ohio
Life is full of second chances – just ask UConn's starting quarterback Zach Frazer. The junior was rated as the ninth-best QB in the nation when he signed with Notre Dame in '06. But after realizing that South Bend, Ind. wasn't the place for him, the Mechanicsburg, Pa. native transferred to Connecticut in '07.
During his first year of eligibility in '08, Frazer earned his first-ever start against North Carolina on Oct. 4 after Lorenzen broke his foot, and delivered a 24-of-44 passing performance for 210 yards and three interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was more efficient against Rutgers in his second start (14-of-20 for 236 yards and a TD) but a head injury in the latter stages of the game sidelined him for several weeks.
Finally healthy, Frazer is now the undisputed leader of the UConn offense, but the junior struggled in last weekend's 23-16 victory over Ohio. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, but also added three interceptions and a fumble. All four of his turnovers occurred on Connecticut's side of the field. Three of the turnovers led to Ohio scores, while the fourth one gave Frank Solich's bunch a 1st-and goal at the six-yard line that was turned back over two plays later.
"Inconsistent," Edsall told The Middletown Press on Sunday when asked to describe Frazer's performance. "He did some positive things, and then there were some things he didn't do so well. All the positions, just like quarterback, we need them to play better."
Matchups to Watch
Connecticut's ground game vs. North Carolina's rush defense
When Donald Brown entered the NFL Draft and eventually signed with Indianapolis, the national media's belief was that the Huskies' ground game would suffer considerably in '09. But locals knew that Andre Dixon earned second-team All Big East honors in '07 and was slated as last fall's starter until an injury sidelined him in the preseason. Add in the fact that Jordan Todman won the starting job over Dixon back in the spring, and there was plenty of quiet optimism saturating East Hartford this offseason.
In Saturday's season-opening win over Ohio, Todman rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts, including a 53-yard scamper. Dixon also crossed the triple-digit threshold, posting 100 yards on 19 carries.
The Tar Heels struggled at times in defending the run last season, allowing 139.4 yards per game (56th nationally) – including giving up 161 yards to Brown. But UNC displayed increased speed and a more focused discipline in holding The Citadel to just 30 rushing yards on 20 carries on Saturday. However, dominating a FCS opponent doesn't equate to shutting down a BCS-level challenger, so North Carolina still has plenty to prove before run defense concerns are tossed aside.
"We've got to be sound up front," middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant said. "We've got to be disciplined and make sure we're fitting our gaps. And then make plays when we have the chance to make plays."
North Carolina's passing attack vs. Connecticut's pass defense
If there was one negative in UNC's 40-6 victory over The Citadel on Saturday, it was the fact that the young wide receivers dropped five passes from T.J. Yates (9-of-20 passing, 114 yards, 2 TD, INT). Head coach Butch Davis had hoped for at least one of the fresh faces to shine under the bright lights, but he was instead forced to tell the media that nerves may have played a role in the overall poor performance.
The Huskies return seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, led by second-team All Big East junior linebacker Scott Lutrus (suffered a stinger against Ohio), and Edsall will have his defensive unit ready to take advantage of any mistakes made by UNC's wide receivers on Saturday. Ohio quarterback Boo Jackson completed 8-of-16 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown against this secondary last weekend.
"Last year, we felt like that they structurally were one of the most sound defenses that we had played against, and there's really no drop-off this year," Davis said. "… They're very fundamentally sound and they're good tacklers. They don't give up a lot of big plays and they make you earn everything that you get."
Five different receivers dropped balls against the Bulldogs, including the lone returning WR that caught a pass last season in Greg Little. In order for Shaun Draughn and the Tar Heel rushing attack to have room to work, the receivers must settle their nerves and force the defense to stay honest in the secondary.