November 30, 2010
Amazing but true: With a win Saturday night at South Florida, Connecticut (yes, it plays football) will clinch the Big East's automatic bid to a prestigious, lucrative BCS bowl. This despite the fact that – abbreviated history notwithstanding – UConn is demonstrably not a good football team. By most measures, it's barely an above-average team even according to Big East standards. In fact, compared to the last four years, it's average even by most UConn standards.
For the season, the Huskies rank 95th nationally in total offense, have changed starting quarterbacks four times and struggled to score 10 points against the worst Michigan defense ever. They've been outgained in five of six conference games. They lost to Temple by two touchdowns and opened the Big East schedule with back-to-back losses at Rutgers and Louisville – currently sitting at eighth place and sixth place, respectively, in the Big East standings – the latter by a final score of 26-0 to drop UConn to 3-4 in late October. Four consecutive wins later, they're still not even in the "Also Receiving Votes" portion of the latest Coaches' poll.
But they are on the verge of securing a spot in one of the most sought-after games in the sport, so they must be doing something right somewhere. Here are a few reasons the Huskies may not (further) make a mockery of the Series for a generation:
• They can run the ball. Running back Jordan Todman has quietly churned out nine 100-yard games in 10 starts, logging at least 25 carries in six of them, including every game of the current winning streak. Against the two best run defenses in the conference, he ground out 113 on 33 carries in an overtime win over West Virginia and 222 on 37 carries against Pitt, including a crazy fourth-and-1 plunge from the UConn 19-yard line to effectively ice the game. It's never spectacular, but like 2,000-yard predecessor Donald Brown before him, a durable Todman is a reliable workhorse: He currently ranks second nationally in both yards and carries per game.
• The defense is disruptive. Eight different Huskies have notched at least 8.5 tackles for loss, led by sophomore pass rusher Jesse Joseph, and the team tally is best in the Big East with at least five TFLs in every game.
• They don't beat themselves. Or at least, they don't anymore. The Huskies were even in turnover margin over the first half of the season but have built a plus-11 margin over the current win streak, with 14 takeaways – at least two in every game – to just three giveaways. Saturday, a week after forcing four interceptions from Cincinnati's Zach Collaros, they get the most interception-prone passer in the conference, B.J. Daniels.
• They didn't back into anything. The top of the Big East standings is a three-way deadlock, but it's not going to take an inscrutable set of tiebreakers or a coin flip to break: UConn is in the driver's seat because it rebounded from an ugly start to take down both of the league frontrunners, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, by coming from behind in fairly hardcore fashion in the second half.
Of course, if they spit the bit Saturday night in Tampa (South Florida is a one-point favorite), feel free to scoff derisively at their descent to an appropriate postseason destination, i.e. the Pinstripe or BBVA Compass bowls, while conceding that West Virginia – a familiar top-25 outfit with nine wins and a top-five defense – doesn't look so bad by comparison. Otherwise, well, maybe the Fiesta won't be that bad. If nothing else, the ESPN hype machine is about to be put to the ultimate test.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.