Nov. 19, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82|
Game 11: Connecticut (Nov. 21)
Conference: Big East
2008 record: 8-5, including a 38-20 victory over Buffalo in the International Bowl.
2009 record: 4-5 – Opened with a 23-16 victory at Ohio University before falling in their home-opener, 12-10, to North Carolina. The Huskies raised their record to 3-1 with a 30-22 victory at Baylor and a 52-10 conquest at home against Rhode Island.
But it’s been a rollercoaster ever since. The Huskies squandered a two-score lead to fall at Pittsburgh, 24-21, before bouncing back with a 38-25 win over Louisville. That was followed by back-to-back 28-24 setbacks at West Virginia and at home against Rutgers. Then came another near miss, a 47-45 loss at Cincinnati, two weeks ago. The Huskies have had two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
Kickoff: 2:42 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: NBC
Connecticut head coach: Randy Edsall is in his 11th season as head coach at Connecticut where he has fashioned a 62-65 record.
Edsall prepped under some notable names in the game. He was defensive coordinator from 1980-90 under Frank Maloney and Dick MacPherson at Syracuse. He was defensive backs coach under Tom Coughlin at Boston College from 1991-93. After a four-year stint in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he served as George O’Leary’s defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. He landed the Connecticut head-coaching job in 1999.
When Edsall took over the Huskies, Connecticut was still Division 1-AA and a member of the Atlantic 10 conference. The Huskies then spent four years as an independent and have been a member of the Big East for six seasons.
It’s been a rocky road at times, but the Huskies have won nine games twice (2003 and 2007) and eight games twice (2004 and 2008). Connecticut’s best finish in the Big East came in ’07 when they were 5-2.
Edsall’s defense: Connecticut’s defenses under Edsall have been fairly consistent and stout against the run. The Huskies have held opponents to less than four yards per carry in four of the last six years. From 2003-05, Connecticut’s defenses held opponents to 3.7, 3.7 and 3.4 yards per carry. Last year once again, it was 3.4.
Connecticut also has held opponents to an average of less than 20 points per game in three of the last four seasons. Huskies foes averaged 19.2 points per game in 2005, 19.0 in 2007 and 19.8 in 2008.
This season, UConn’s nine foes have averaged 3.8 yards per carry and 23.6 points per game.
Series history: This will be the first meeting between Notre Dame and Connecticut on the gridiron.
Close losses: When it comes to heartbreakers, Notre Dame and Connecticut have plenty in common. While the Irish are bemoaning four losses by a total of 18 points, the Huskies have had it even worse. Connecticut has five losses by a total of 15 points, including a two-point loss to North Carolina, a three-point loss at Pittsburgh, four-point losses at West Virginia and to Rutgers, and a two-point loss at Cincinnati.
Against West Virginia, Noel Devine scored on a 56-yard run with 2:10 remaining to give the Mountaineers a 28-24 victory. Against Rutgers, the Huskies took a 24-21 lead with 38 seconds remaining, only to see the Scarlet Knights steal the victory on an 81-yard pass from Tom Savage to Tim Brown with 22 seconds left.
Against Pittsburgh, the Huskies squandered a 21-6 lead with 3:56 left in the third quarter. Against North Carolina, Connecticut had a 10-0 lead with 55 seconds left in the third quarter. Not only did the Huskies allow the Tar Heels to tie the game, but left offensive tackle Dan Ryan was called for holding in the end zone on a 3rd-and-22 from the Connecticut eight to give North Carolina the decisive two points in the 12-10 loss. The penalty occurred with 1:32 left in the fourth quarter.
Real heartbreak: As shattering as a series of close losses can be to a football team, nothing compares to what the Huskies experienced the day after their 38-25 victory over Louisville on Oct. 17. Defensive back Jasper Howard was stabbed to death on the Connecticut campus, sending the entire Connecticut community into mourning.
The Huskies continued to play, losing to West Virginia six days later by four, followed by a four-point loss to Rutgers and a two-point loss to Cincinnati. A reminder of the tragedy remains on the Connecticut stat sheet where Howard still ranks as the fifth leading tackler on the squad. He also was Connecticut’s top punt returner.
“One of my sons has been taken away,” said Edsall, after being called upon to identify Howard’s body. “The Howard family will get through this, as well as the UConn family. Because we are determined and we are willing to make sure that Jazz will be honored in the right way, and how we do things is what he’ll be expecting out of all of us.”
Double barreled: While Notre Dame is led in rushing by Armando Allen with 591 yards, the Huskies have two backs with more than that. Jordan Todman, a 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior and Andre Dixon, a 6-foot-1, 202-pound red-shirt senior, are a dynamic one-two punch.
Irish fans (and the ND defense) need to keep an eye on Jordan Todman. He has rushed for over 800 yards with 12 touchdowns in 2009.
What makes their performance and the effectiveness of the Connecticut ground game so startling is the fact that the Huskies lost the nation’s leading rusher, the Big East player of the year and first-round draft choice Donald Brown to graduation following his spectacular ’08 season when he rushed for 2,083 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Both Todman and Dixon have taken turns as the star back. They’ve even both rushed for 100 yards in a game. Against Ohio University, Todman rushed for 157 yards and Dixon had an even 100. Against Baylor, Dixon had 149 yards and Todman 103. For the season, Todman has 826 yards, a 5.2-yard average and 12 touchdowns while Dixon has 730 yards, a 4.6-yard average and seven touchdowns.
In addition to the Ohio and Baylor games, Todman rushed 94 yards at West Virginia and 162 yards and four touchdowns at Cincinnati. He also had 70 yards and three touchdowns against Rhode Island. Dixon had 98 yards against Rhode Island, 95 yards at Pittsburgh, and 153 yards and three touchdowns against Louisville.
“They’re similar guys,” said Irish Mike linebacker Brian Smith. “They like to get north-south fast and they’ll really hit it up in there. They’re both physical backs and they want to pound you. (Connecticut) averages 167 yards rushing per game, so they want to pound you.”
Frazer returns: An unusual set of circumstances and a twist of fate has a former Notre Dame quarterback going up against his old teammates this weekend when the Huskies come to town.
Former Irish signalcaller Zach Frazer will be in the starting lineup for the Huskies this weekend. Once a member of the current Irish senior class, Frazer decided to transfer out of Notre Dame in the spring of 2007 after he finished fourth in the quarterback competition behind Demetrius Jones, Jimmy Clausen and Evan Sharpley.
Frazer, who had to sit out the ’07 season, started two games in ’08. He completed 46-of-83 passes for 536 yards (55.2 percent), but his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 2-to-6.
Frazer won the competition with Cody Endres in the pre-season and started the season-opener against Ohio University. He completed just 11-of-24 passes for 127 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He then started the North Carolina game in Week Two, but went down with an injury in the third quarter.
Endres took over the reins at quarterback and led the Huskies to victories in three of the next four games. On Oct. 31, Endres went down with his own injury in the first quarter of the Rutgers game. Frazer completed 21-of-46 for 333 yards and a touchdown, but again, the interception bug bit him when he threw three. Frazer completed 19-of-32 for 261 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Cincinnati two weekends ago.
“Zach was a great guy, one of my good friends when I came here,” said Irish senior center Eric Olsen. “We had a good relationship. We had a pretty good friendship. Things obviously didn’t work out the way he wanted them to and he had to leave to give himself a better opportunity.”
Irish free safety Kyle McCarthy will wait until after the game for any reunions with Frazer.
“He’s on the other team now, so our job is to try to make his life miserable,” McCarthy said.
“He’s a good quarterback, though. We can attest to that. We’ve seen it first-hand. He’s got the talent to have a big game. We’re preparing not to let that happen.”
On the season, however, Frazer has been susceptible to the interception. He has seven picks to just four touchdowns, which gives him a career interception-to-touchdown ratio of 13-to-6.
Another dominant defensive end: It started with Nevada, continued with Michigan, carried through with Washington and USC, picked back up with Pittsburgh, and now shows itself again with Connecticut.
Notre Dame just can’t seem to get away from the dominant defensive ends.
In 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior Lindsey Witten, the Huskies have the No. 2 sack man in the country. Witten has 10 Â½ sacks on the season.
Yet here’s an example of where statistics can be deceiving. Most of Witten’s production came in the first two weeks of the season against Ohio and North Carolina. Witten had four of his 11 tackles for loss against Ohio and 4 Â½ more the following week against the Tar Heels.
“(Witten) needs to step it up,” Edsall said. “There’s no question about that. He hasn’t been as productive as he was earlier in the year.”
Common opponent: Notre Dame and Connecticut lost by nearly identical scores to Pittsburgh. The Huskies lost a 24-21 decision after leading 21-6 with less than 19 minutes remaining. The Huskies had just 303 yards total offense while Notre Dame’s potent passing game allowed the Irish to finish with 349 yards total offense. Pittsburgh gained 489 yards total offense against UConn while the Panthers had 429 yards against the Irish.
Both teams had difficulty defending 6-foot-5 wideout Jonathan Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards and a touchdown against the Irish and eight receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Huskies. Likewise, Dion Lewis was a nuisance for both team’s defenses. Lewis had 21 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame and 24 carries for 158 yards against Connecticut.
Edsall on Notre Dame: “Notre Dame is a team that’s got a lot of skill players offensively who can make a difference. Jimmy Clausen is as good a quarterback as we’ll face this year. He’s got a tremendous arm, great poise in the pocket, and knows where to go with the football.
“Golden Tate is a guy you’ve got to be concerned with all the time in terms of where he is and what he can do with the football, not only as a receiver but also as a return guy. Michael Floyd is another wide receiver who is capable of making plays for them. And then also, now that they have Armando Allen back, he’s energized their running game for them.
“So they’re one of the top offenses in the country in terms of yards per game, passing yards, and they’re scoring about 29 points a game. We have a tremendous challenge defensively.
“Our biggest challenge defensively is to make sure we eliminate the big play. That’s kind of been our Achilles heel defensively this season. So we’ve got to do a better job of minimizing those big plays.”
Key match-ups: Notre Dame’s special teams needs to be on top of their game this weekend against the Huskies, both to guard against a possible long return and to take advantage of an opportunity. Connecticut has scored on a punt and kickoff return while allowing two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Robert McClain, who is returning punts on a full-time basis since the death of Jasper Howard, had an 87-yard score against Cincinnati. Robbie Frey had a 100-yard kickoff return for a score against Rutgers. The Huskies rank 20th nationally in kickoff return average with a 24.47-yard mark.
But the Huskies also proved vulnerable to the return against West Virginia when Tavon Austin took the opening kickoff and scampered 98 yards for a touchdown. Rutgers’ Devin McCourty also returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Connecticut also is susceptible to the big play offensively. Ohio University quarterback Boo Jackson connected on a 44-yard scoring pass in the season-opener. Rhode Island scored on a 66-yard pass against the Huskies. Baylor had a 72-yard touchdown run against UConn. West Virginia’s Noel Devine had runs of 62 and 56 yards against Connecticut. And then there’s was the heartbreaking 81-yard scoring strike by Rutgers with 22 seconds remaining. Jimmy Clausen and the Irish wideouts will be looking downfield against the Huskies.
The question is which Irish rush defense will show up. Will it be the one that held USC, Boston College and Washington State to less than 300 yards combined, or will it be the one that surrendered 348 yards to Navy’s triple option attack and 193 yards to Pittsburgh?
The Huskies have a 167.9-yard rushing average per game, which ranks 45th in the country. They do it with the tandem of backs and an offensive line that boasts 324-pound left tackle Mike Ryan, 333-pound left guard Erik Kuraczea, 315-pound right guard Zach Hurd and 323-pound right tackle Mike Hicks.
Fighting Irish/Huskies facts – Notre Dame’s offense has totaled at least 20 first downs in each of its first 10 games, which is the first time that has been accomplished by the Irish since 1974 … Sam Young is expected to set the Notre Dame record this weekend for consecutive starts with 49 … Despite Notre Dame’s struggle to score points in the first halves of the last two games, the Irish still rank fifth nationally in passing offense (321.3 yards per game) and ninth nationally in total offense (452.2 yards per game) … Notre Dame has had just 13 three-and-outs on offense this year, which is tied for the third lowest figure in the country. Only Idaho (10) and Texas Tech (12) have fewer three-and-outs than Notre Dame. Nevada, Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent, also has 13 three-and-outs this season … The sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium this weekend against Connecticut marks the 214th straight … Notre Dame is 20-0 under Charlie Weis when it out-rushes its opponent. Notre Dame is 24-7 under Weis when scoring first. Notre Dame is 25-6 under Weis when leading at halftime … The Irish are still ranked 25th nationally in turnover margin at +0.60 despite a minus-three against Navy and a minus-two against Pittsburgh.
Connecticut has been a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision since 2002 … Of the five losses this season by a total of 15 points, the Huskies were leading four of them in the fourth quarter … Head coach Randy Edsall, now in his 11th season at Connecticut, is the ninth-longest tenured FBS coach at his current job. Edsall has coached 127 games at UConn, which is the most in school history. He is the fourth Connecticut coach to coach at least 100 games, joining J.O. Christian (121 from 1934-49), Tom Jackson (119 from 1983-93) and Robert Ingalls (106 from 1952-63). Edsall’s 62 victories is tied for second in UConn history behind Christian’s 66. Edsall currently is tied with Jackson with 62 … UConn’s road victories in ’08 against Louisville and Syracuse marked the first time since the Huskies joined the Big East in ’02 that they won more than one road game in a season. The Huskies are 0-3 on the road in the Big East this season … UConn is one of just three schools who are members of a BCS conference to play three fellow BCS conference members out of league, joining Georgia and Syracuse. The Huskies played North Carolina of the ACC, Baylor of the Big 12 and now Notre Dame … Connecticut will be ambitious with its schedule in the future as well. Michigan and Tennessee are scheduled to visit Rentschler Field in 2013 and 2016 respectively. The Huskies will travel to Michigan in 2010 and to Tennessee in 2015 … Connecticut is 22-14 in games following a loss since Oct. 26, 2002; Notre Dame is 11-12 following a loss during the Weis era.
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games – every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.