Head coach Randy Edsall shocked UConn football fans when, after the Fiesta Bowl loss, he announced he's leaving to coach in Maryland. File photo by Vito J. Leo for HTNP.com Sports
Hank Hughes, UConn’s assistant head coach for defense the last six seasons, has been named interim head football coach while UConn seeks a replacement for Randy Edsall.
With the Connecticut offense as cold as the Arizona evening temperatures hovering under the freezing mark, and the Huskies secondary over-matched by the Oklahoma pass-catch combo of Landry Jones to All-American Ryan Broyles, the UConn football team fulfilled the prophets of doom’s predictions and lost in a big way to the Sooners, 48-20 in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
Then a day later, the Huskies had an even bigger loss. Head Coach Randy Edsall announced he is leaving UConn for a head coaching position in Maryland.
“Well, it’s disappointing when you play the game and you don’t come out on top. But our kids battled the entire time,” said Edsall who took the Huskies to their first BCS Bowl on the first day of the new year and then on the second day of 2011 announced his departure.
In 12 seasons as Head Husky, Edsall compiled a 74-70 record, including a 3-2 slate in bowl games, with the most recent loss coming at the hand of the powerful Sooners.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Oklahoma quarterback Jones threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns and Broyles snagged 13 passes for 170 yards to lead Oklahoma (12-2) to the win over Connecticut (8-5).
When redshirt sophomore Dwayne Gratz picked off a Jones pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown, it looked like this might be the catalyst for a Connecticut comeback much as Lawrence Wilson’s pick-six against South Florida had propelled the Huskies to a BCS Bowl-clinching win in the final game of the regular season.
But the Sooners were a lot more ornery than the Bulls had been and – even with a 95-yard kickoff return for a score by Robbie Frey later in the game – UConn just couldn’t overcome Oklahoma’s superlative talent and superior depth.
“As I told them in the locker room, it is a game of inches. And we couldn’t make enough of those inches today against an outstanding football team in Oklahoma. And when you play a team like Oklahoma, you have to play perfectly,” Edsall said after the game.
Most pundits predicted a blowout by the ninth-ranked Sooners who would be facing a Connecticut squad that couldn’t dent the Top 25 until the final game of the regular season.
Who was watching?
The Huskies entered the game as the biggest dogs ever to appear in a BCS Bowl game – but that’s not a good thing, if by “dogs” you mean underdogs.
Las Vegas odds makers posted Oklahoma as a 17-point favorite – which may have made the match-up an attractive bet for some people, but apparently was not an attractive enough match-up to capture the attention of a lot of television viewers.
According to published reports, the Saturday prime time game on ESPN had a 6.7 overnight rating, down 22 percent from an 8.6 for Boise State’s 17-10 win over TCU in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.
That translates into a little more than 25 million viewers, all told.
However, to put these ratings in perspective, this cablecast event outdrew the viewership of the four broadcast networks combined.
Nonetheless, it seems the only sports fans who really wanted to see the Sooners and the Huskies play in this BCS Bowl were, not surprisingly, residents of Oklahoma and Connecticut.
For the rest of the nation – the interest-is-lower 48, as it were – the prevailing theory seems to be that the Big East just doesn’t belong with the Big Boys in these big bowl games.
Be that as it may, for the two participating states, this game was important on so many levels, the least of which was TV ratings.
Oklahoma – read that, head coach Bob Stoops – had become the butt of sports talk radio jokes after losing five straight BCS Bowls; so the Sooners were quite pleased, no doubt, to face an overachieving UConn team, figuring the not-as-experienced, not-as-fast, not-as-deep Huskies would be easy pickings to get off the snide of the BCS Bowl slide.
It was a chance to get that monkey off their collective back and prove the five-game losing streak was not indicative of their ability.
As Stoops is quick to point out, three of those losses did come in national championship games, after all, and how many other teams are there out there with more BCS title game appearances than Oklahoma? Answer: none.
Connecticut also was looking at the Fiesta Bowl as a way of proving a point, that point being that UConn football – just like the school’s two basketball teams – was good enough to hang with the nation’s elite.
Whether or not the four-touchdown margin of victory proves or disproves any of those points remains to be seen, especially in the case of Connecticut recruiting, which should receive a big boost from the big bowl exposure heaped upon the 48th smallest state in the country.
“We just have to keep recruiting. We just have to keep getting more players is what we need to do,” Edsall said. “And that’s not anything on our guys. I mean, every year we have been getting better. These guys would tell you we are getting more talented each and every year.
“And that comes with the success of the program and it comes because of the guys sitting next to me and the contributions they’ve made. And that’s really what has to continue to happen,” Edsall said. “We just have to continue to get guys that can make more plays and have more depth of guys that can make plays. Kashif made a lot of plays tonight,” said Edsall, referring to wide reciever Kashif Moore.
Jersey No. 6 back in play
It was only fitting that Edsall should single out Moore during the post-game interviews because Edsall had singled out Moore for a very special pre-game honor: wearing jersey number 6 for the Fiesta Bowl, the jersey number that had been hanging in a locker for more than a year, unused since Oct. 17, 2009 when its previous wearer, Jasper Howard, was killed during a fight on campus.
It was certainly a surprising moment seeing the number 6 come running out of the tunnel, one’s first reaction being, “who’s wearing it?”
Students watch a tribute to former UConn football player Jasper Howard - on the screen is his jersey, which was back in play at the Fiesta Bowl game. File photo by Vito J. Leo for HTNP.com Sports
A year ago, in the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama, a couple of the players, led by Sio Moore, had taken the jersey out on the field with them, waving it high in the air triumphantly after the win over South Carolina.
But here was someone actually wearing the jersey during a game – and no one had a right to wear it more than Kashif.
“I want to thank Coach Edsall for asking me to wear it. It’s good to honor a fallen teammate and brother of ours in Jasper Howard. This would have been Jazz’s last game. And I am sure he would have shined,” said Moore, who had been with Howard the night he was stabbed to death near Gampel Pavilion. Moore held his dying buddy in his arms while he and others tried to revive the young athlete.
After the game, Edsall explained his thought process for making the decision to make Howard the focus of pre-game attention.
“I went running one day when we were back on campus during the Bowl preparation and just got a thought in my mind: How could we honor Jazz? I just felt in my heart that we needed to do something. And I came back from running and we practiced that day and so I went up to Kashif while he was stretching and I just asked him. I said, ‘I got a thought when I was running. I want to run something by you.’ I said, ‘Would you want to wear No. 6 for the game?’ And he said ‘Absolutely.’ So, that’s how that all took place,” Edsall said.
After all was said and done, even though the UConn offense didn’t score any points for the second straight game, the Huskies came up with the biggest “6″ of all.
They may not have won the game, but with that move, the University of Connecticut football team won the hearts of a lot of people across the country.
Posted Jan. 3, 2010; updated at 9:55 p.m. re: interim head coach