Injury Derailment

Last season was supposed to be the Huskies' year. With an all-everything quarterback, a beautiful new stadium and an up-and-coming head coach, the possibility of a BCS bowl game in its first year as a Big East member seemed very real for an upstart Connecticut team. Those dreams, however, did not come true, and UConn entered the 2005 season with only 12 returning starters to help it live up to the lofty expectations it had set for itself.

Through the first five games of this year, though, everything was going just dandy. Connecticut was 5-1 with its only loss coming against a very talented Georgia Tech team, and media members like Jack Arute (a UConn alum, by the way) began talking BCS once again for the Huskies.

All of that changed, however, when Connecticut traveled into Cincinnati to face a Bearcat team that was widely considered the bottom feeder of the Big East. The Huskies were never really in the game, as Cincinnati cruised to a 28-17 victory, leaving UConn with more questions than answers.

Although Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall will not make excuses for his team, some of the decline has been the result of a mind-boggling string of injuries. Over the last two games, UConn has lost eight starters due to injuries, and it has been forced to try to patch some of the holes with inexperienced athletes.

The most glaring injury came to Connecticut quarterback Matt Bonislawski, who had been doing an excellent job at the helm of the UConn offense.

In his five starts, the Natrona Heights, Pa., product completed 56-of-101 passes for 599 yards, and he had thrown six touchdowns compared to four interceptions. Bonislawski saw his season come to an end, however, when he suffered a season-ending collarbone break while playing against Syracuse in East Hartford.

Redshirt freshman D.J. Hernandez, a local product from nearby Bristol, Conn., had to be thrust into the starting role, and he looked like a rookie at times against Cincinnati. H e r n a n d e z completed just 19-of- 43 passes for 191 yards against the Bearcats, and he also tossed a critical interception.

Hernandez also suffered a wrist injury (a break on his non-throwing hand) in that contest, and it is still unclear whether he will be back to take the snaps against the Mountaineers. If not, it will be up to true freshman Dennis Brown, who did not play at all in any of the first six games of the year. Brown was originally slated to be redshirted this season, but the string of injuries has pushed the 6-3, 185-pound rookie into the spotlight.

UConn will not be able to count on its receivers to bail out the quarterback either, as the Huskies have yet to find a truly consistent threat at that position.

Senior Jason Williams, the leading returnee from 2004, is at the front of the pack right now, having pulled in 18 passes for 186 yards in six starts this season. His average of 31 yards per game does not exactly take an opponent's breath away, though, and he has not proven to be the type of player who can draw a double team.

Junior Brandon Young is another one of the favorite targets. The Morganza, Md., native missed all of 2004 after being injured in a car accident, but he did have 50 catches in his first two seasons and is currently third on the team with 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown in three starts. Young has missed some time with an ankle injury, but he is expected to be healthy when the Huskies visit Morgantown.

Tight end Dan Murray has caught 12 passes for 161 yards and two scores, while sophomore Brandon McLean has seven grabs for 70 yards on his season statistics.

Morgantown native Seth Fogarty is also a member of the Connecticut receiving corps, and the third-year sophomore has pulled in three passes for 21 yards, including a touchdown grab against Cincinnati.

UConn has traditionally been a passing team, but that has changed this season. The Huskies have put the ball in the air 158 times in six games and nine of their 22 offensive touchdowns have come through the air. The only Big East teams which have thrown the ball fewer times than UConn this year are WVU (128) and South Florida (152). With its top quarterback out and its No. 2 man battling injury, however, Connecticut will probably rely on the ground game even more.

Junior running back Terry Caulley has all the tools to do it, and he has quickly become the poster boy of UConn football. Caulley sat out all of 2004 with a severe knee injury, but he is now completely healthy, and he has picked up right where he left off when he rushed for 1,247 yards as a true freshman in 2002.

Caulley, who stands just 5-feet- 7-inches tall but is shifty and quick enough to make opponents miss, has carried the ball 103 times for 514 yards in six starts, and he leads the team with six touchdowns. Freshman fullback Lou Allen is also a big part of the running game, and he has toted the ball 38 times for 223 yards and a touchdown this season.

Relieving Caulley at times is last season's leading rusher, Cornell Brockington. The junior carried the ball 238 times for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, making the loss of Caulley much easier to take, but he has carried the ball just 55 times this year, gaining 194 yards on those runs.

All of the Connecticut backs have been forced to break some tackles and fight for extra yards running behind an offensive line full of more green than a rainsoaked pasture.

Senior tackle Grant Preston, who will be starting his 43rd career game when he comes to Mountaineer Field, is the only proven force on the line. The rest of the Connecticut front has just 39 career starts among the four of them, and they are still trying to learn on the job each week.

Junior Matt Applebaum, who starts at left guard, and junior Craig Berry, the starting right tackle, have at least had some time to develop in the Connecticut system, but redshirt freshman center Trey Tonsing and redshirt freshman right guard Immanuel Hutcherson are seeing everything for the first time.

Connecticut has not let the youth up front bring it down, however, as it has rushed for 237 yards per game and has allowed its quarterbacks to be sacked just 13 times.

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has made a big splash in his first year at his new position. His unit is ranked among the nation's best in total defense, coming in fourth with an average of just 248 yards allowed per game. UConn is first in the land in passing defense (129 ypg) and passing efficiency defense (81.34 rating), and it comes in fifth in scoring defense, giving up just 12.7 points per game.

Its play on third down has been a big reason for opponents' lack of success. The Huskies lead the NCAA in third down conversion defense, allowing opponents to pick up just 13-of-83 third down tries.

Linebacker James Hargrave, who had 88 tackles and 15 tackles for loss in 2004, is the star of the UConn defense once again. The Pleasantville, N.J., product moves to the outside linebacker spot commonly referred to as the "Husky" linebacker in Connecticut's 4-3 defensive look, and he leads the Huskies with 33 tackles, 20 of them coming in the solo variety. No. 32 is also tops on the team with eight tackles for loss, and he has three sacks, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to his credit.

Hargrave is joined by a pair of first-year starters in middle linebacker Ryan Henegan, a sophomore, and Danny Lansanah, who fills the other outside backer position. Henegan has made just seven tackles on the year, but Lansanah has been a force with 32 stops, 7.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, 1.5 sacks and an interception in five games of action.

The most experienced unit on the defensive side of the ball is the line that is exactly the same as the unit West Virginia faced in 2004. Defensive end Shawn Mayne is the most impressive of the group, having recorded 18 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and two tipped passes in six starts.

Senior tackle Deon McPhee is one of the best in the Big East at his position. Adjusting from the weather in his native Bahamas to the frigid temperatures of a New England winter has not been easy, but he has adjusted just fine on the football field. In six starts, McPhee has 17 tackles, two sacks, a pass breakup and a forced fumble to his credit.

The other UConn tackle is junior Rhema Fuller, who fought off some determined competition to keep his spot. Fuller has started in all six games and has 14 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on the year.

Beside Fuller is sophomore defensive end Dan Davis, who started in the first five contests before missing the Cincinnati game with an ankle injury. Davis will be back, and he will bring his nine tackles, two pass breakups and one forced fumble with him.

Experience is much tougher to find in the Connecticut secondary, where only free safety M.J. Estep started last year. Estep, who has 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season, is not a full-time starter either. That is because sophomore Marvin Taylor is pushing for his spot. Taylor has played in all six games, and he has 22 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery to help make his case for playing time.

The strong safety is freshman Dahna Deleston who has burst onto the scene with a roar. The local product from East Hartford, Conn., leads the entire secondary with 32 tackles, and he also has an interception and two tackles for loss on his resume.

Another freshman sensation, Darius Butler, starts at corner, where he is the team leader with three interceptions. He also knows what to do with the ball when he gets it in his hands, as he has returned those three picks for 122 yards.

Sophomore Tyvon Branch rounds out the Connecticut secondary at the other corner spot, where he has 11 tackles and a pass breakup on the year.

Lyndon Johnson (no, not that one) is the Huskies' new special teams coach, and junior kicker Matt Nuzie has helped make him look like a genius. Nuzie has made just 7-of-12 field goal attempts this season, but he has shown the ability to strike from anywhere on the field. He is 2- for-4 from beyond 40 yards with a long of 50 on the season. His protection, though, has not been that great, as he has already had two kicks blocked on the year.

Sophomore kick return man Larry Taylor, one of the best in the league, will handle those duties on both kickoffs and punts. He is averaging 34.2 yards per return on kickoffs and 12.3 yards on punts. The speedy receiver has yet to break one for a touchdown, but most believe it is only a matter of time.

Sophomore punter Shane Hussar is averaging just 39.7 yards per boot, but he has put seven punts inside the 20 and has a long of 59 yards on the year.

The 2005 meeting between the Huskies and the Mountaineers will be just the second all-time between the two schools (Connecticut played 1-AA football for much of its existence). West Virginia won that 2004 contest 31-19 on the road at UConn's Rentschler Field when it rushed for 339 yards behind Jason Colson and Rasheed Marshall to move to 5-1 on the season.

BlueGoldNews Top Stories