UConn, Irish Clash on Senior Dayposted by John Vannie
The 4-5 Huskies appear at first glance to represent no great threat, but upon closer inspection this game seems destined to be decided in the final moments. Randy Edsall’s team held the lead late in the fourth quarter in four of its five losses, and was only a missed two-point conversion away from tying fourth ranked Cincinnati on the Bearcat’s home turf. The untimely surrender of big plays has proven costly, but injuries to key players such as quarterback Cody Endres and the stabbing death of cornerback Jasper Howard on October 18 has been too much for the UConn family to overcome. The team has not won since defeating Louisville, a game in which Howard was awarded a game ball by his coaches and teammates just hours prior to his death.
Former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer has earned back the starting job for the Huskies after Endres was lost for the season. Frazer has completed only 51% of his passes and suffered seven interceptions, while Endres was far more efficient at 64% and only four picks. The pressure of playing at his former school will add to Frazer’s stress level, but Edsall has already taken the initiative to provide a calming influence.
"I brought him in and I spoke to him as you can imagine. I told him what he needs to do is just play like he did against Cincinnati. He showed great composure, tremendous poise, and very good focus just going out and taking what the defense was giving him. I know he has good friends and good memories out there, but once he hits that field, it's just another game."
Connecticut is coming off a bye week after three straight gut-wrenching losses, and Edsall’s attempt to downplay the upcoming opportunity on national television is classic coach speak.
"It really is just another game. It's the tenth game this season. But from the school's standpoint, it probably means more to the school and the people associated with UConn football from the beginning. I don't know if anybody ever thought that UConn football would have the opportunity to play such a storied program as Notre Dame. For the players, we have to treat it as just another game. The field is still 120 by 53 and a third, it's no different than the field that we play on."
This sure sounds like a football version of “Hoosiers” to me.
While the Huskies have not set foot in Notre Dame Stadium, Edsall paid his first and only visit in 1993 when he coached against the Irish as a member of Tom Coughlin’s staff at Boston College. Yes, we are talking about THAT infamous game.
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE vs. CONNECTICUT DEFENSE
The Huskies’ style of play is physical, but this year’s lineup consists of precious few veterans interspersed among numerous young players. Pass rusher Lindsey Witten is a senior with NFL potential and 11 sacks to his credit this season, while the other three linemen are sophomores and freshmen. Scott Lutrus leads a trio of three junior linebackers, and Greg Lloyd, Jr. is the son of the former Steelers great. The secondary is manned by a pair of seniors, safety Robert Vaughn and cornerback Robert McClain. Each has four interceptions this season. Howard’s spot at the other corner is being filled by freshman Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
The Irish running game can expect to meet resistance early in the contest when UConn is fresh. Weis has not shown patience in the past when the run is not working, so fans can expect a lot of passes from Clausen. The Huskies do not blitz very often and will drop into coverage to take away the long scoring strike. This is the same strategy used to a high degree of success by the likes of Navy, Boston College and Pitt. The key to its success is the amount of pressure that can be exerted by the defensive front four.
The matchup between Witten and Notre Dame’s offensive tackles will be a critical element in this contest. Clausen may have a field day if he has time to throw, but his protection has not been stellar lately. The bigger question, as always, will be whether the Irish can stick with the run and make it work.
CONNECTICUT OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME DEFENSE
The Huskies are a run-first team with a tandem of capable backs and a massive offensive line. Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon share the carries at tailback, and will have to be successful in order to reduce the pressure on Frazer. Conversely, the Irish must force Frazer into third and long situations so they can take advantage of his relative inexperience. They will blitz frequently on passing downs in an attempt to rattle him and force errant passes.
When Frazer drops back to throw, Marcus Easley has emerged as his primary target and deep threat. Brad Kanuch and Kashif Moore are capable short range receivers and tight end Ryan Griffin is an improving young player. The passing game made strides against Cincinnati in their last game as Frazer went 19 for 32 for 261 yards and no interceptions despite playing from behind most of the day. A repeat of this type of performance may be problematic for the Irish, especially if UConn’s rushing attack is equally successful.
Notre Dame played well defensively last week at Pittsburgh for the most part, but a few breakdowns led to big plays that spelled defeat. The Huskies are not known as a high powered offensive team, but Easley and Todman can hurt the Irish if given an opening.
UConn’s Desi Cullen was named one of ten semifinalists for the 2009 Ray Guy Award, which identifies the nation's top collegiate punter. Kicker Dave Teggart is reliable within 40 yards but his range does not extend much farther. McClain has returned a punt for a touchdown this season while Robbie Frey has a 100-yard kickoff return to his credit. Edsall’s coverage teams are usually very competent, and this year is no exception.
The team that wins the battle of field position will have a distinct advantage. Notre Dame’s offense has routinely started deep in its own end in recent weeks, and poor punting has put undue pressure on the defense. Any near-term expectations that the Irish will improve in this area have expired, so the path to victory becomes that much more difficult.
The more Edsall and UConn try to say that this is “just another game” for the Huskies, the more you know that they are salivating at the opportunity to beat Notre Dame in their first visit to South Bend. A bye week will provide even more focus for this capable but hard-luck group, and the Irish must be ready for a sixty minute battle. UConn does not have the personnel to stay with Notre Dame if the Irish play at a high level, but the team has performed poorly of late and is in the midst of another November collapse. The lack of good fundamentals combined with the fact that it’s more difficult to surprise an opponent at this stage of the season tend to negate the talent disparity between Notre Dame and a mid-level but highly motivated and well-coached team.
Let’s consider a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
Will the Irish be able to keep Witten from adding to his impressive sack total?
Can Frazer control his nerves and deliver a quality performance?
Will Clausen be asked to throw 40 passes?
Can Notre Dame’s defense neutralize UConn’s rushing attack?
Will the Huskies be able to capitalize on their distinct advantage in the punting game?
Will the importance of Senior Day be sufficient motivation for the Irish to match UConn’s all-out effort?
There is little recent evidence that Notre Dame can put together and sustain a solid effort, but the fourth quarter comeback against Pittsburgh showed that the light is not completely extinguished. The Huskies have dropped several games in the last few minutes to good teams, and losing in that manner can become a malady that is hard to shake. Although many signs point toward an upset, I just can’t get past the wide gulf between quarterbacks Clausen and Frazer. Somehow, some way, the Irish should prevail.
NOTRE DAME 24 CONNECTICUT 23