The Huskies are coming off their most notable season since joining the FCS in 2004. After stumbling early to an underwhelming 3-4 record (0-2 Big East), they rattled off five straight wins, splitting the regular season Big East title with West Virginia and Pittsburgh. Head-to-head wins over both clubs sent the Huskies to Glendale, Arizona, to face the Oklahoma Sooners in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Despite the 40-28 loss, this marked a huge win for the program – their first BCS bowl game appearance.
But things look a bit different in Storrs these days. After 12 seasons as the head coach of Connecticut, Randy Edsall left to take over at Maryland. Edsall took the Huskies to five bowl games in seven seasons since the university joined the Big East for football in 2004.
The University of Connecticut kept with the trend of hiring former Syracuse football coaches, naming Paul Pasqualoni as head coach this past January. Pasqualoni coached the Orange from 1991-2004, producing a 107-59-1 overall record and a 73-34 record in Big East play. Pasqualoni was fired after the Orange was routed by Georgia Tech in the 2004 Champ Sports Bowl, despite finishing tied for first in the Big East.
Pasqualoni comes to Connecticut having spent the last several years in the NFL with both the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins. He also brings with him offensive coordinator George DeLeone, who coached alongside Pasqualoni his entire head-coaching career at Syracuse.
Pasqualoni and DeLeone have much to figure out between now and kickoff on Sept. 1, returning just five offensive starters.
Players to watch for (Offense):
D.J. SHOEMATE (RB): With Jordan Todman (1,695 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns) gone to the NFL and senior Robbie Frey transferring to Division II Kutztown, the former USC Trojan will get his chance. Shoemate rushed for just 115 yards and one score last season. Pasqualoni seems to be equally impressed in camp with Lyle McCombs, so expect the redshirt freshman to get some serious time running the football.
RYAN GRIFFIN (TE): With so many questions at the quarterback position, the 2011 John Mackey Award Watch List candidate may be a sight for sore eyes. Griffin caught 31 passes for 245 yards and one touchdown last season, and is sure to be a reliable target for whomever emerges behind center. At 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, Griffin is likely to be used in multiple roles, having helped open holes for Todman last year. He will undoubtedly be relied upon for his ability to block as much as his ability to catch the ball.
Players to watch (Defense)
KENDALL REYES (DT): On the early watch lists for several national defensive awards, Reyes finished the 2010 season with 39.0 tackles (9.0 for losses), 2.5 sacks, and two interceptions. The 2010 All-Big East selection is one of nine returning starters for the Huskies’ defense and will be looked to for his senior leadership.
BLIDI WREH-WILSON (CB): Wreh-Wilson was key to the Huskies’ second-half surge in 2010. He finished the year with 57.0 tackles and 4 interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. With both Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gretz returning at cornerback, the Huskies’ defense will be one of the more experienced in the Big East.
Fearless Prediction: Spin it any way you want, all the talk prior to this game will be about Paul Pasqualoni facing the program he spent close to two decades with. If the two teams were playing in the Carrier Dome, the emotional edge would have to go to the Orange. But, Syracuse must travel to Rentschler Field (where they have never won) and the Orange has not beaten the Huskies since 2006. Doug Marrone is winless against Connecticut in his first two seasons as head coach, being outscored 79-37, and the Huskies should have their offense figured out by early November when the Orange come to town.