Connecticut (3-4, 0-2) will be looking to right the proverbial ship when it hosts Stewart and the Mountaineers in a Friday night contest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
Little has come easily this season for Edsall’s squad, which took an embarrassing loss at Temple early in the season and has dropped its first two Big East games.
The first, a 27-24 defeat at the hands of Rutgers was understandable, even if still surprising. But after Edsall dismissed quarterback Cody Endres from the program for an undisclosed violation of university policy and handed the offense to redshirt freshman signal-caller Michael Box, things went from bad to worse in a 26-0 loss at Louisville this past Saturday.
Box suffered an injury early in that contest, and former starter Zach Frazer took over in his stead -- meaning UConn went through a trio of quarterbacks in a matter of a week. That was one major reason the Huskies were shut out for the first time since 2005 in their loss to the Cardinals.
West Virginia (5-2, 1-1) has never lost to Connecticut in the programs’ six match-ups, all of which have come since the Huskies joined the Big East in football for the 2004 season.
But the Mountaineers had enjoyed similar dominance in recent history against Syracuse, which turned the tables in a big way, upsetting Stewart and company 19-14 on Homecoming this past Saturday in Morgantown. Thus, the third-year WVU coach is hopeful his team won’t overlook this week’s opposition the way he feels it did against SU.
“It had been since ’01 since the Syracuse Orange had beaten us. Nine years,” Stewart said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “Some of my freshmen were nine years old at that time. UConn has never beaten us. Now, if they look at the same press clippings and use the same analogy, we’re going to take a thumping up there. I don’t know how to convey that any more than what I’m saying.”
While the 2010 Connecticut squad has stumbled through the first half of the season, Stewart pointed to the recovery Edsall and company made after a rough stretch in 2009.
After UConn cornerback Jasper Howard was killed in a stabbing in October, the Huskies fell three consecutive times in maddeningly close fashion -- a 28-24 loss at Stewart’s WVU team, a 28-24 loss at home to Rutgers and a 47-45 defeat at the hands of eventual league champion Cincinnati.
But Edsall’s troops rallied in time for a solid end to their season, earning four consecutive victories -- a 33-30 win at Notre Dame, a 56-31 win over Syracuse, a 29-27 victory over South Florida and a 20-7 thumping of South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
“I don’t know what people think of UConn,” Stewart said, when asked about the perception that the Huskies are struggling this year. “I only see a pretty good football team we were fortunate to beat 28-24 here last year. I also see ... they whipped a pretty good South Carolina team, which just whipped Alabama. They went into South Bend and won, which not many people do. So I think the UConn Huskies are a good football team.”
“They’re a Big East team and anything can happen.”
With the Huskies dealing with major issues at the quarterback position in recent weeks, even more of what was already a heavy load offensively is now being carried -- along with the football -- by UConn running back Jordan Todman.
The junior ranks fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging 140.17 yards per game in his six outings, as he did not play in his team’s win over Buffalo. Todman is a bit of a workhorse, and his average gain per carry is actually the second-lowest among the nation’s top 10 rushers (though it’s a still-impressive 5.96 yards per attempt).
Even when Connecticut has struggled, Todman has shined. He had 192 yards on 26 carries in his team’s 30-16 loss at Temple and had a bruising 37 carry, 195 yard performance to help lead his team to a 40-21 win over Vanderbilt.
But Todman comes into Friday night’s game fresh off his worst outing of the year, when he gained “only” 80 yards on 19 carries.
Given UConn’s quarterback issues, WVU’s defense may be able to more fully commit to slowing down what Stewart said is a talented running back.
“He’s hurt us in the past,” said the Mountaineers’ head coach. “He’s fast. He doesn’t go down. He’s not a big, big man like [Syracuse running back Delone] Carter. He’s a lot like [Carter’s teammate, Antwon] Bailey.
“He’s elusive. He’s fast. He’s hurt us in the past.”
ANSWERS ON OFFENSE?:
Though his team’s offensive numbers have been trending downward, Stewart said in the aftermath of the Syracuse loss that he has seen reasons for optimism about the play of that unit, and that the majority of the problems on offense stem from inconsistent play.
The head coach was asked Tuesday just what he sees that gives him hope for his offense when seemingly few other observers have any.
“I see us play hard,” Stewart said. “I see us not have a lot of mental mistakes. I see us compete. I see us make plays.”
Still, all of that hasn’t added up to much in the way of improvement in Stewart’s two and a half seasons patrolling the West Virginia sidelines. Indeed, things have regressed at least where it matters most -- the scoreboard.
The Mountaineers scored 30 or more points in 10 of Stewart’s first 18 games as head coach. Since then, WVU has managed to achieve that mark in only three of its last 15 contests.
So if Stewart’s issue with his offense is in its lack of consistent play, what can he and his coaching staff do that it hasn’t done before to try to improve?
“By finishing,” he said. “By getting better. By getting the ball to play-makers’ hands. Just work. Hard work. I don’t know if there’s any magical calls or a wand I can wave. You block, you tackle, you work, you practice and you get better.”