Connecticut's 37-20 win over Iowa State in Ames on Nov. 23, 2002 qualifies as one of those unforgettable games. And with Iowa State (2-0) visiting Rentschler Field Friday night to renew the series with UConn (1-1), it's only natural for those associated with the program to reflect on that previous meeting.
The Huskies rallied from a 10-point deficit in the third quarter to record their first victory ever over a bowl-bound team. To top it off, the victory meant UConn concluded the 2002 season with a 6-6 record, the program's first non-losing season in four years of Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
Hank Hughes, assistant head coach and defensive line coach for the Huskies this season, was defensive coordinator in his second season at UConn in 2002. He's one of the few witnesses to that event still in Storrs. Hughes admits time has erased many of the details from that day in Ames, but he knows it was a great feeling heading home with a victory over a team that had been ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation that season.
"I know we felt good about ourselves because we came together as a group and went out and accomplished something," Hughes said earlier this week. "That's what you're always trying to do as a team. We had great respect for [Iowa State] and that was a great win. I remember coming back and Dee Rowe was meeting the bus out there at about 3 o'clock in the morning. It was a great experience."
Rowe, the former UConn basketball coach and now Special Adviser for Athletics, is known as the unofficial greeter of the Huskies. A handshake from Rowe is one of the unique traditions associated with UConn athletics.
"It meant everything," Hughes said of the victory in Ames. "At that point in time we were trying to prove we could go out and compete with people. We played a very good team from a great conference and opened up some people's eyes. Obviously that was a monumental game in terms of being able to break into I-A football."
UConn jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter against quarterback Seneca Wallace and the rest of the Cyclones, who went on to lose to Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl. Iowa State rallied to go ahead 20-10, but the Huskies scored the final 27 points of the game. Terry Caulley rushed for 191 yards and scored on a 68-yard touchdown for the Huskies. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky was 20-for-38 and threw three TD passes.
"I know we got some turnovers. That was a big part of the game," Hughes said. "Terry Caulley was a big player for us on offense. Seneca Wallace was a great player. We had a lot of respect for him going out there. And we had a lot of respect for them as a team. They had been a Top 20 team earlier in the year. They were explosive."
Just for some perspective, the following is reprinted from Terry Price's game coverage for The Hartford Courant:
The doors to the UConn locker room were propped open, as if to welcome in the world. At the center of the room, coach Randy Edsall was surrounded by his players. Then, Edsall said the words that perfectly defined the moment.
"Today," Edsall said, "this football program is a national program."
It didn't just happen with the blink of an eye. It didn't just happen overnight. It just happened.
UConn made it happen Saturday.
The Huskies signaled their emergence as a Division I-A program on the rise with a 37-20 upset of Iowa State before 34,582 at Jack Trice Stadium.
Freshman Terry Caulley rushed for a season-high 191 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown, and Dan Orlovsky completed three touchdown passes in the victory over a Big 12 team ranked ninth in the country earlier this season.
"What a great way to end the year," senior tight end Tommy Collins said. "This is going to set the stage for years to come."
The Huskies (6-6) finished the season by winning four in a row. But none of the other victories in the streak or any in UConn's three years as a Division I-A program compared with beating Iowa State (7-6).
The Cyclones, who have lost five of six, are headed to a bowl for the third consecutive year. Iowa State, 6-0 at home before Saturday, also boasts a premier player in quarterback Seneca Wallace, who last month was mentioned as a Heisman candidate.
"This is a very significant win for this program and the university," Edsall said. "We sent a message that we can beat some of the big boys -- and we did."
One season earlier, the Huskies had endured a 2-9 campaign that began with a 52-10 loss at Virginia Tech and ended with a 56-7 loss at Temple. The next time the Huskies took the field after beating Iowa State, it was Aug. 30, 2003 and UConn christened Rentschler Field with a 34-10 win over Indiana. UConn posted a 9-3 record in 2003 and the Huskies have had only two losing seasons since.
Without doubt, that Iowa State game got the Huskies over the hump in their climb from Division I-AA and, for several days at the end of 2002, the Huskies were the pride of Connecticut after beating a Big 12 team.
As for Hughes, he says he never heard the chatter.
"When you're coaching, you don't get out that much, to be honest," Hughes said with a laugh. "I couldn't tell you what people were saying. Quite frankly, you know, I see the same guys every day."
But almost nine years and so many games later, the victory still brings a smile to Hughes' face. And that may stand the test of time.