UConn Throws Big East Race Into Chaos
Edsall hasn't been spotted eating grass during games – at least not yet. But Thursday night at Rentschler Field, with Connecticut leading Pittsburgh 30-28 and 2 minutes, 50 seconds left on the game clock, Edsall decided against punting on fourth-and-one from the UConn 19. He called timeout, looked into the eyes of his offensive lineman and sent them back on the field with the entire season hanging in the balance for the Huskies.
"The best thing is not to think too much about it," Edsall said. "You take your guts and you take your instincts and you see what's happening during the game. When you look at it, to me, it wasn't that big a risk. I just saw Pittsburgh take the ball down against our defense ... boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I saw what our offensive line was doing and had done."
The Huskies put the ball in the hands of tailback Jordan Todman, the leading rusher in the Big East. And Todman, who established personal highs with 37 carries for 222 yards, gobbled up four yards to the UConn 23. First down. And the crowd of 35,391 went crazy.
The Huskies (5-4 overall, 2-2 Big East) ran out the rest of the clock to defeat Pittsburgh (5-4, 3-1) and keep their chances alive for a Big East Conference championship and a BCS bowl berth. With consecutive victories over West Virginia and Pitt (the first time UConn has done that in the same season), the Huskies have something to play for the last three weeks of the season.
"I didn't think I could have lived with myself if I said I had punted the ball," Edsall said. "Some people might say it takes a lot of cojones to make that call. I just looked at the situation. I think I would have been doing a disservice to the offensive football team if I had taken them off the field in that situation."
Just like that, Edsall and the Huskies threw the Big East race into total chaos. At this late stage of the season, the conference doesn't have one bowl-eligible team. Pitt remains in sole possession of first place, the only team with one loss in conference play. But the other seven teams are all stacked together with two losses.
Syracuse (6-3, 3-2) holds second place Syracuse isn't bowl eligible with the six wins because it has two wins against FCS teams -- Maine and Colgate.
The next tier features UConn, South Florida and Louisville at 2-2 in conference play. Bringing up the rear are West Virginia, Rutgers and Cincinnati – all at 1-2.
If the rest of the Big East teams were watching on national TV Thursday night, they must have been ecstatic. Everyone still has a mathematical chance to grab the championship trophy.
"There were definitely times when we were 0-2 that our chances of going to (a BCS) bowl were slim," said Todman, who entered the game averaging 136.3 yards rushing. "But as things start unfolding, there's Big East teams losing and it's kind of up in the air. We kind of figure if we win out and some things happen, it's possible we can win the Big East. Now we're right back in it."
UConn has games remaining with Syracuse, Cincinnati and South Florida. Only the Cincinnati game is at home, where the Huskies now are 5-0. Pitt, the conference's preseason favorite, could have established a stranglehold on the race with a victory Thursday night. The Panthers finish out against South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati. West Virginia is the only home game remaining for Pitt.
"We did not stop the run on defense, we turned the ball over on offense, and we gave up two plays on special teams – a touchdown and a fumble which turned into 14 points," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It was just disappointing because of how we practiced. I thought our guys showed up ready to go, but we didn't handle it well in any area. Now it is back to the drawing board."
Last season Pitt was a top-10 team heading into the final two weeks. After losing at West Virginia, the Panthers needed to beat Cincinnati at home to wrap up a BCS berth. But a 45-44 loss to the Bearcats sent Pitt to the Meineke Car Care Bowl where the Panthers salvaged the season with a 19-17 victory.
"Every time in the meeting room, we preach Big East and the Big East championship," said Pitt tailback Ray Graham. "We didn't come out here to lose."
Dion Lewis, last year's Big East rushing champ, led the Panthers with 77 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Graham gave Pitt a solid one-two punch, picking up 75 yards and one TD on 16 carries. But Graham's fumble on a kickoff return after UConn had taken a 23-21 lead gave the Huskies a golden opportunity to pad the lead.
Quarterback Zach Frazer (9-for-20, 100 yards, 2 TDs) made the Panthers pay, leading the Huskies into the end zone on two plays, capped by a 14-yard TD pass to Isiah Moore just 48 seconds after UConn had taken the lead on a 25-yard field goal by Dave Teggart.
Frazer, an All-American in high school and a transfer from Notre Dame, has ascended to the starting quarterback spot three times at UConn. He also has lost the job on three occasions. He was sacked, got the wind knocked out of him, and left the game with 12:40 remaining. But he returned to lead the Huskies to their last 10 points and the final possession when they ran the clock out.
"Zach is a competitor," Edsall said. "You've got to give him a lot of credit for coming back and doing what he's done after what he's been through. It says a lot about who he is as a person."
As the Huskies try to complete their remarkable turnaround, Frazer will be asked to lead the way. When Edsall sent the offense back on the field to make that big fourth-down play, Frazer said he never thought once about the possibility of not picking up the first down.
"I knew as soon as he called it that we would get it," he said.
And what would he have thought, had he been a UConn fan sitting in the crowd?
"I would have thought, 'I'm glad I came to this game,' " Frazer said.