UConn Football's Season Like No Other

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UConn Football's Season Like No Other
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Walking along Fairfield Way, in the core of UConn’s campus, the winter wind of Storrs whips around the buildings and on this December morning it isn’t letting up. In between Gampel Pavilion and the Student Union, I stop at a crosswalk, hearing the crack of rock salt under my shoes.

I look up and get a feeling in my stomach that’s been there for a couple months. This part of campus has felt different for a while now. It will never feel the same.

I stand on the ground where UConn Football suffered the biggest loss in the history of the program. It didn’t take place on the gridiron, but here in the middle of campus.

When Jasper Howard stabbed to death in the morning hours of Oct. 18, the defeats on the field became second nature. The near upsets, blown leads resulting in close losses, were considered “heart breaking.” But it wasn’t until that October morning for UConn to have their heart truly broken.

The UConn-Louisville homecoming contest came at a crucial point in the Huskies season. The 3-2 UConn squad had blown a fourth quarter lead at Pittsburgh, losing 24-21 on a last-second field goal by the Panthers.

As the Panthers celebrated on the field, one lasting memory from the televised game was of junior cornerback Jasper Howard sitting in disbelief and being consoled by senior running back Andre Dixon. Howard had a reason to be shocked.

The Huskies blew a fourth quarter lead for the second time that season after the offense stalled and the defense couldn't come up with a big stop. So that next week it was clear the Husky defense needed a leader and someone to step up in the clutch and secure a win.

Howard was there.

The cornerback had 11 tackles against Louisville. Perhaps Howard made the biggest play of the game when he stripped Cardinals running back Bilal Powell and recovered the fumble at UConn's four-yard-line. The Huskies led by eight at the time, and went on to win 38-25. Howard said of the clutch forced fumble and recovery, "You gotta play every play like it's the last play you'll ever play."

On Oct. 17, Jasper Howard played his final play.

The 2009 season started like any other in Storrs. The only big news of the offseason was the signing of four-star wide receiver Dwayne Difton. Oh, and the team got new uniforms designed by Nike.

But UConn is a basketball school, always will be, and students were too busy watching both the men's and women's teams in the Final Four to care about the Spring Game. In fact, UConn football was a distant third in favorite sports in Storrs, until 2009.

UConn Football has always been third in Connecticut to basketball, and as long as Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have the reins, it probably always will. Head Coach Randy Edsall was a distant third favorite coach at UConn, until 2009.

There was the usual build-up to the football season on campus. People were excited to tailgate and party, and see a ranked opponent in North Carolina play in East Hartford. That's the big problem about the program. The fact Rentschler Field is a good 30-minute drive from campus turns a football game into a drunken tailgate.

Students who don't drive to the games take the bus. The bus's leave as soon as they are filled, and students who make it into the Rent usually leave for the Runway shortly after halftime, turning UConn's "best student section in the nation and best facility in college football" into a half-empty stadium.

If the athletic deptartment could improve this, it would give the Huskies more of a home-field advantage in the fourth quarter, rather than make UConn look pathetic and make Rentschler Field look as bare as the Yale Bowl.

The tough-ACC opponent to open the home slate made the opener better than usual. North Carolina was ranked causing more students to attend, and stay, as UConn held a 10-0 fourth quarter lead. The Huskies were on the verge of a 2-0 record. That is, if people knew the Huskies had already played a game prior to the Tar Heels.

A week before, at Ohio, in an untelevised game, UConn took care of business and beat the Bobcats 23-16. Zach Frazer, who won the starting job over Cody Endres in summer camp, looked sharp at times, but was unimpressive at moments and the inaccuracy resulted in three picks.

UConn won the game on the ground as usual with sophomore running back Jordan Todman and Dixon both reaching the century mark in rushing yards. But against UNC, the Huskies had a chance to win a big game early in the season.

However, Frazer was injured, the defense broke down after such a great first three quarters and the game was tied. UConn had the ball deep in their own territory. On third-and-long with a minute and change left on the clock Dan Ryan was called for holding in the end zone.

The result was a safety and the fans headed for the exits. At least they stayed that long. On the free kick, UConn recovered it giving the faithful left hope. But the offense wilted, and Endres was sacked with seconds remaining. UConn fell to 1-1.

The loss in that fashion put a damper on the year early in Storrs. The Huskies went on their longest road trip ever, to Waco, TX. Although the win came against lowly Baylor, it meant a lot for Andre Dixon who scored three touchdowns and ran for 149 yards in his first breakout game since being lost in Donald Brown's shadow during 2008.

But many people did not see the game because the game was untelevised, and the only way to pick up the feed was from the Baylor Athletics Site. But viewing the game on the computer wasn't so bad, those who watched got to see a win, by a score of 30-22.

The Huskies went into the first of two bye weeks on the right foot, beating old rival, now FCS opponent Rhode Island 52-10. The 1,000th game as a varsity program ended in victory as Endres, Todman, and Robbie Frey led the Huskies in the rout. After the bye week, UConn headed to Pittsburgh to start the Big East slate.

The late afternoon start was perfect for college students, and many gathered in the Student Union to watch the Huskies play on ABC. It was the first time many learned who senior wide receiver Marcus Easley was. The walk-on from Stratford caught a 79-yard touchdown pass from Endres on a surprisingly aggressive play call from the Huskies.

However, with a possession late in the half and three timeouts in his pocket, Edsall reverted to his conservative ways, to the demise of UConn students, and was content in going into the locker room at halftime leading 7-3.

But after Robbie Vaughn returned an interception for a touchdown early in the third quarter, things were looking up. Andre Dixon made the game 21-6 in favor of UConn, and it looked like the Huskies would leave Heinz Field with a victory. But with the Carolina ending still fresh in our minds, nothing, as everyone would learn in life, was certain.

Bill Stull, after getting booed earlier in the game by the Pitt fans, led a late charge in the third period. The Husky defense started to resemble Swiss cheese. Consecutive 20+ yard TD passes later, and the game was tied in the fourth. The offense didn't help the defense get a breather, and it was Carolina all over again. Dan Hutchins kicked a field goal as time expired, and the same fans that were booing their team were now celebrating with them.

UConn has an university notification system where all registered phones in the aforementioned system receives text messages when alert status is elevated and when incidents occur. Information is also available online and through e-mail, however more times than not, it is nothing.

So when texts were sent in the wee hours of Sunday October 18th, who would've imagined a student-athlete was murdered in the heart of campus. By Sunday afternoon the news had spread to everyone, and tears flowed.

October 18 was different. It was a windy, cold and cloudy day, an autumn afternoon that students are accustomed to in New England. As the day wore on, snow began to fall on campus, as if winter came early. The reality was, this fall and football season was far from over. It was just beginning.

Students did their part to pay tribute to Jasper; setting up memorials, candlelight vigils, and days of remembrance, wearing black, not to mention flooding the Co-Op bookstore with requests of No. 6 shirts. The end of the week gave students an opportunity to write letters to the Howard family, and all students who did savor that chance were given a picture card of Jasper.

Many still have their candles from the vigil, and always will.

On Saturday at West Virginia, the team did their part.

No. 6 came out of the tunnel with his teammates, as Kashif Moore and Dixon carried Jasper's helmet and jersey onto the field, to cheers from both team's fans. A sign read, "Today, we are all Huskies," and many signs proclaimed Jasper's eternal impact in the stands. Jasper's jersey hung on the Husky sideline as UConn played its first game without him.

It was impossible to predict how the Huskies would perform under such grief and sadness. After the Mountaineers returned the opening kick for a touchdown, UConn needed to gain strength from somewhere, they looked to the jersey hanging on the sideline.

Moore scored his first touchdown of the season, and saluted his fallen friend. The favorite Mountaineers continued to take back the lead from UConn, until Endres found Easley for an 89-yard touchdown catch that put the Huskies up in the closing minutes. Back in Storrs, students erupted into celebration, in what looked like a storybook ending to a nightmarish week.

A small gathering went to the Union Theatre, a fraction of the student attendance of a vigil held in the Student Union Quad earlier that week. Still, there were people who wanted to support Jasper, and this team. Unfortunately, Noel Devine scampered down the sideline, outrunning a defense that missed Jasper's speed, to the end zone. West Virginia 28 UConn 24. The Huskies did everything to honor their late teammate, except come home with a win.

The next week was Rutgers. At home. Seemingly everyone had purchased Jasper's jersey and Husky fans knew this event at the Rent was going to be different. The football team had requested everyone be in the stands prior to kickoff for a moment of silence, instead of the usual act of waltzing in before the second quarter began. Students were given wristbands with Jasper's motto, "Live 365."

They wore the same eye black as the team. Everyone in attendance was given a No. 6 poster and as kickoff loomed, Rentschler Field turned into a sea of sixes. Students flashed up their fingers signaling Little Haiti, as Jasper did after his only collegiate touchdown a year before at Syracuse.

The Miami neighborhood was a dangerous place to grow up, but he survived and made it to UConn. His goal was to make it so he could support his family and baby, but the seemingly safe rural campus didn't allow him to.

Once again the opposition returned the opening kickoff for a score. The Scarlet Knights were in control of the contest, but the 40,000 stayed behind the home team, no one was going to bail on this game. Down 21-10, Easley caught a touchdown pass from Zach Frazer, who came in for an injured Endres.

On the two-point conversion, Edsall called a trick play, as Frazer threw it to offensive linemen Mike Ryan, who dove into the end zone as the somber crowd turned raucous, sensing they were watching something special.

After an official review, the play was overturned because Ryan was not eligible. Students shouted profanities, and coach Edsall lost it. Running halfway on the field, he let his emotions go on the officials, but made sure his players kept them in check. They did.

After the defense came up big with a stop, Frazer attempted to lead the grief-stricken team down the field to get the go-ahead score. After converting a fourth down in their own territory, the Huskies faced a 4th and 6, with the game on the line.

Frazer threw it to Moore, short of the first down markers, but nothing would stop Moore from keeping UConn alive. He did not make it into the end zone, but set the Huskies up for 1st and goal, in front of the student section. It took another fourth down, to punch it in, as Jordan Todman threw up six fingers after making the game 23-21. The Rent had never been louder.

An extra point gave UConn a three-point lead, and with less than 30 seconds left, the players and fans were about to celebrate about an emotional win as you can. Only again, it was not a storybook for Jasper's teammates, well maybe for one of Jasper's closest friends from Miami.

Tim Brown outran the UConn secondary 81 yards, and threw up the same six fingers as Todman did, to show love for his friend, even though it hurt Jasper's team. The Rent went from the loudest it had ever been, to the quietest. The Scarlet Knights shocked the Huskies, and the nightmare didn't end.

The Huskies were still searching for a win. Other teams may have dubbed the last minute loss tragic, but UConn had gone through a real tragedy. It was just another life lesson, and reminder that sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair.

The next weekend, UConn went on the road to face No. 4 and unbeaten Cincinnati in front of a national audience on ABC. Down 30-10 at the half, the Huskies had to continue to fight, and Todman and the offensive line led a comeback.

After Todman scored his fourth touchdown of the night, UConn was within two. After a sack on the two-point conversion attempt, and a tradeoff of scores between the two offenses, the game ended Cincinnati 47, UConn 45.                                                                                                 

On November 28, the 5-5 Huskies faced 4-7 Syracuse in a match up more fitting for Gampel Pavilion, but the two teams lit up the Rentschler Field scoreboard. Former Duke point guard Greg Paulus and the Orange kept the pressure on UConn offense.

The usual suspects; Dixon, Todman, Frazer and Easley responded to that pressure and gave the Huskies a 56-31 win over Syracuse. It was also their first win in front of the home crowd since Howard’s death, and made the Huskies bowl eligible.

The next week on Senior Night against South Florida, snow fell throughout the frigid Northeast. The cold and snow did not affect the Bulls, especially quarterback B.J. Daniels, who ran for two touchdowns and threw for another. Dixon scored two touchdowns in his final home game.

Easley and Isiah Moore caught touchdown passes from Frazer, who this time was the quarterback to lead his team on a game winning drive. Down 27-26, the Huskies went down the field and set up Dave Teggart, who looked like another New England kicker as he booted a 42-yard field goal in the snowy conditions as time expired.

The remaining fans poured out emotion as the players celebrated on the field. It was a fitting way to finish out the most exhausting, and perhaps most unbelievable a season as a team can have. The win moved UConn to 7-5, and clinched their third straight trip to a bowl game. A trip to Birmingham, Alabama and the Papajohns.com Bowl awaited this most deserving group of young men.            

The Huskies ended a trying season with a 20-7 win over South Carolina in the bowl game. The victory was bittersweet for many, as the bowl was a chance to reflect on the occurrences on and off the field in 2009. Kashif Moore made the catch of the year for the Huskies, a one hander down the sidelines for a touchdown. The Husky defense shut down the Gamecock offense for most of the day.

In his last college game, Dixon ran for 126 yards and a score. His emotion was evident after the game as he looked up in the sky while Edsall was being interviewed. Tears were in both their eyes. Jonathan Jean-Louis and Moore carried Howard’s jersey after the game and handed it off to Edsall to hold while he raised the Papajohns.com Bowl trophy.

An exhausting season ended with fireworks in the sky, and the team taking Jasper’s jersey for a victory lap. However, the defining moment of the season came six weeks earlier.                                                        

Did the Nov. 21 trip to Notre Dame, the first meeting between both schools on the football field, lack luster after the Fighting Irish stumbled down the stretch in what was dubbed a BCS-bound season? Think again.

There were plenty of storylines. UConn's starting quarterback, Frazer, was returning to South Bend after transferring from Notre Dame. He finally lead his team out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, but he was wearing a different uniform. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis was fighting for his job after the Irish lost two straight to Navy and Pittsburgh, respectively.

It was senior day, and for the Notre Dame seniors it was their last chance to play on the Kentucky blue grass field, after four years of ups and downs. It was also widely speculated that quarterback Jimmy Clausen and  favorite target, wide receiver Golden Tate were playing their last home game as well. Both juniors were strongly considering playing on Sundays.

And of course, the UConn football program, a FBS team for only six years, was playing in front of their largest audience, 80,000 in the stands, and many others watching on NBC.

But none of those storylines mattered.

To get a win for Jasper, on the biggest stage in college football, was the only storyline.

There are a lot of plays in the game that are easily forgotten. They just gel into one another and get lost in the brain, never to be remembered again. UConn’s double overtime win at Notre Dame by the score of 33-30 is, for a lot of people in Connecticut, a game that won’t ever be forgotten, instead it will be treasured. And unlike other great wins, the final score won’t be the only piece of the game that people cherish.                

As for me, I’ll always remember the sound of Greg Lloyd’s goal line hit on Armando Allen in the second quarter. The rush of excitement in the third when Jordan Todman broke through the kick coverage and saw only green grass and a giddy UConn band waiting for him in the end zone.

I’ll never forget Kashif Moore’s leaping touchdown catch in the first overtime. Moore, who was with Howard at the Student Union Dance, and by his side with Michael Smith as they desperately tried to save him, became a voice in the UConn community during the weeks that followed Jasper’s death. He looked up in the sky after he scored for his friend.                                                                              
And of course, Andre Dixon’s four-yard scamper in the second overtime, that clinched the win. Dixon didn’t flash a six or look up to the heavens after crossing the goal line. Instead he simply flung the ball in the sky. It wasn’t clear by any camera angle where the ball landed, but it definitely reached Heaven.                                                                  

The postgame interview with Edsall was the icing on the cake. That more than any play in the game is the most worth remembering. For a man and a program that is overshadowed by the basketball teams and their Hall of Fame coaches, this was Edsall’s moment. It will be a while before the Huskies will get an opportunity to win a national championship on the football field.

They might not ever have success parallel to the basketball programs, and if they do Edsall won’t be there to see it. He is too great of a coach and a man, it won’t be long until he reaches the game’s greatest stage, with or without UConn. Most likely the latter. However, the postgame interview with NBC is his crowning moment in Storrs. It wasn’t after a championship but it showed how human he was and how Jasper’s life touched his.

By the end of the interview he was in tears, and proclaimed the win by “little-known Connecticut” the “best we’ve ever had.” In the interview, Edsall didn’t speak to Alex Flanagan, but to Jasper’s family watching in Miami. He told them of his intentions to send the game ball to Florida.                        

“That No. 6 is up there, and I tell you he prayed for us today, and he got it,” Edsall said. “Jazz this is for you. God dang.”                                                                                    

God dang.

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