UConn to play Michigan in biggest home game in program history
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 20, 2013 01:09
Rentschler Field has been open for 10 years, and on Saturday night, the home of UConn football will host its biggest opponent and largest crowd yet, as approximately 42,200 fans watch the Huskies take on No. 14 Michigan.
The stadium normally holds 40,000 people, but temporary bleachers capable of holding about 2,200 fans have been added on either side of the newly installed video board to accommodate the demand for tickets from both UConn and Michigan fans.
“Obviously it’s exciting. I think it’s exciting for everyone in the state of Connecticut, there’s no question about that,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “To have a team like Michigan, a high-level, perennial top-20 team with tremendous tradition coming in here, that’s exciting.”
This season has not started the way that UConn would have liked. The Huskies are 0-2 for the first time in 11 years, falling at home to both Towson and Maryland. The running game has failed to take off – running back Lyle McCombs has only rushed for 129 yards in two games – and injuries are an issue heading into the game against Michigan (3-0). Wide receiver Shakim Phillips, right tackle Kevin Friend and linebacker Graham Stewart are all questionable for the game, and there is not much optimism that they will take the field.
Despite the early season adversity, Pasqualoni is not going to let his team be intimidated by playing a national powerhouse.
“Our players in this program have played against Michigan and played against other big teams,” Pasqualoni said. “I think the kids understand. I’m not going to get up in front of them and say this is the Michigan Wolverines. That is not in my fiber to do that.”
But it is Michigan, meaning UConn will be playing in front of a live crowd and television audience that they are not accustomed to. The Huskies want to prove that the last two games were a fluke.
“I want them to see a good, solid football team,” Pasqualoni said. “A team that knows how to play and handle themselves on the field and a team that can play offense and play defense and special teams. It doesn’t have to be super fancy, but I’d like it to be good, sound and solid football.”
This is the second meeting between the two schools – the first came in the opening weekend of the 2010 season. UConn trailed by 21 at one point in that game and had a chance to pull within a touchdown in the third quarter, but D.J. Shoemate fumbled on Michigan’s three-yard line, giving the ball and the game back to the Wolverines. Michigan went on to win 30-10.
The bright spot in the early season for UConn has been junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer. In 2012, Whitmer’s first year under center, he often was forced into contested throws due to a lack of protection on the offensive line.
When Whitmer has had time to throw this season, he has been effective, completing 61.6 percent of his throws for 555 yards and three touchdowns. But Friend’s injury has left a hole on the right side of the offensive line that backup Xavier Hemingway has been unable to fill. Through two games, Whitmer has been sacked 10 times, and most of those sacks have come with Friend out of the game.
Whitmer will surely be hoping to have Phillips available on Saturday. The duo has connected 15 times over two games, gaining 255 yards and scoring three touchdowns. If Phillips is unable to go, Geremy Davis will be Whitmer’s main target. Davis has caught 10 passes for 154 yards in 2013.
UConn’s offense will be threatened by Michigan’s tenacious defense, which has intercepted five passes and boasts a 63.6 percent efficiency rating in the red zone.
Michigan’s defense is anchored by cornerback Blake Countess, who is tied for the national lead with three interceptions this season. Countess picked off the first two passes of his career on Sept. 7 in a 41-30 win over then-No. 14 Notre Dame.
The Wolverines come into Saturday’s game with one of the most explosive and multidimensional offenses in the country. Entering their fourth game, they are averaging 42.7 points and 449.3 yards – 254.3 passing and 195 rushing – per game.
Leading the way for the Wolverines is quarterback Devin Gardner. A former wide receiver, Gardner ranks first in the Big Ten Conference in total offense per game for an individual player with 313.7 yards. Of Michigan’s 21 plays of 20 yards or more, five of them have come on runs by the duel-threat quarterback, and 11 of them have been passes he’s thrown, three of which went for touchdowns.
In total, Gardner has 11 touchdowns this season – four rushing and seven passing – but he is not the only big-time player on the Wolverines’ offense.
Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon is Gardner’s preferred passing target. The two have connected 18 times for 297 yards and four touchdowns. Slot receiver Drew Dileo and tight end Devin Funchess have also been often-used targets of Gardner, who has found each of them for one touchdown this season.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has recovered from a leg injury that ended his 2012 season to rush for 199 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
Michigan also boasts one of the best offensive linemen in the country in left tackle Taylor Lewan, who decided against entering the NFL Draft to return for one last season.
“I’m hopeful that everybody understands that it’s only a play or two that turns these games around,” Pasqualoni said. “There’s a great sense of urgency to be able to focus on what you have to do, take care of the little things, your assignments, technique and positions. In the end, the big thing I keep saying to the kids, the score will take care of itself.”
Michigan enters the game on the back end of a 28-24 win over Akron at Michigan Stadium. Akron nearly pulled the upset in the final minute of the game, but were stopped just short of the goal line. Despite escaping with a win, the Wolverines were less than pleased with their performance. After a full-pad practice on Sunday, Michigan is all business heading to Rentschler.