The Huskies enter a brief bye week with a bit of confidence, thanks to a 16-10 victory over South Florida on Homecoming. It's still been a year with more down than ups for the defending champs, as everyone gets adjusted to the new coaching staff and players begin to grow into their new roles.
But for the veterans on the squad, the Tuesday after the Bulls game marked a stark reminder of how much worse things can get.
It was Oct. 18, 2009, that their former teammate Jasper Howard was stabbed to death at an on-campus party. Howard, a standout cornerback, was a leader in the locker room as well as on the field, and his loss is still felt there today.
It's a sobering date on the calendar, one that always brings reminders in the local media and an indication of the relative unimportance of college sports. Then the team hits the practice field again and sports become critical, because it's what's right in front of everyone and the Huskies need some wins.
Connecticut kept itself in the title picture with the win over USF. At 1-1 in the Big East and 3-4 overall, however, it faces a tough road ahead. A midweek trip to Pittsburgh will be followed by home dates against Syracuse, Louisville and Rutgers, culminating with a season-ending trip to Cincinnati.
And it has to do so with the added pressure of the Big East uncertainty. As the conference looks to add members, its existing schools are at the same time elbowing each other for positioning elsewhere should that need come about. It's a distraction nobody with the program needs or wants right now.
As the coaching staff looks to get everyone on the same page to make a run at a bowl bid, the Jasper Howard memories serve as a reminder that whether that turns out in UConn's favor or not, ultimately it's still only a game.
--Johnny McEntee has the starting quarterback's job, emerging from a trio that also included Scott McCummings and Mike Nebrich. McEntee isn't exactly setting the world on fire, however. He's totaled 1,209 passing yards through seven games, completing 52.4 percent of his pass attempts.
--UConn's victory over South Florida was a milestone win for coach Paul Pasqualoni. It gives him 63 victories in Big East play, the most of any coach in conference history, and was his first at Connecticut. The other 62 came while he was at Syracuse.
--RB Lyle McCombs has taken over the starting running back job, and shows no signs of slowing down. The redshirt freshman has 100 yards in four of his seven games, and carried the ball 32 times for 130 yards against South Florida.
BYE WEEK MISSION: There's a lot for the Huskies to work on this week, particularly continued work on learning the systems and getting comfortable with each other. The passing game has been out of synch on both sides of the ball, which has left the offense reliant on the run and the defense vulnerable to the big play.
LOOKING AHEAD: Connecticut has five Big East games left, three of which are at home. With a 3-4 overall record and a 1-1 conference mark, it needs three wins to be bowl-eligible and likely five to repeat as Big East champs. The key will be the first of these five contests, a Wednesday night trip to Pittsburgh, and the fate of the season likely hinges on that contest. Win, and the sense of gloom that permeated the campus throughout the early fall may dissipate. Lose, and it'll be tough to do anything other than barely scrape by into a third-tier bowl game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it would help. We would all like to know exactly what the landscape all over the country is going to be. … I just think there's a certain amount of comfort in knowing exactly where you stand." -- UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, to the Hartford Courant, on how it would benefit the program for the Big East to bring in new teams to increase stability.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: When the Huskies are going well, the offense looks a lot like it did under former coach Randy Edsall, relying on the running game to control the clock and shorten the game. Lyle McCombs has been a revelation at tailback, especially considering the injury sustained by senior D.J. Shoemate. But UConn is getting very little out of the passing game, whether that's because of inexperience, ineffectiveness or both.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Connecticut's defense is fortunate that it enters the weekend off on a strong note, scoring the only touchdown and shutting down South Florida in the team's latest outing. That takes some of the edge off of what's been a mediocre performance in Don Brown's first year as coordinator, particularly against the pass. The Huskies secondary has struggled mightily against top receivers, particularly with Blidi Wreh-Wilson on the sidelines.
--CB Bryon Jones enters the bye as the Big East Defensive Player of the Week. He returned a fumble for UConn's only touchdown in last week's 16-10 victory over South Florida.
--CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson has missed the past three games with a sprained MCL. He hopes to be back against Pittsburgh, but the odds of that won't be known until closer to game time.