Huskies are surprise in Big East, national title races

The University of Connecticut fielded its first football team in 1896, right around the time Joe Paterno applied for the Penn State coaching job.

A little more than 11 decades later, people are beginning to notice.

The New York Times featured UConn football in Monday's editions, under the headline, "Fast-rising Connecticut Has the Inside Track to the Big East Title."

It was not a misprint.

And we're not talking about basketball.

The Huskies, who were picked to finish seventh in an eight-team league and who completed their move to major college football just five years ago, sit alone atop the Big East standings with a 3-0 record. They are 7-1 overall and ranked No. 13 in the Bowl Championship Series Standings, ahead of football factories such as Southern Cal, Texas, Auburn, Alabama and Florida.

"It's definitely a cool thing," says quarterback Tyler Lorenzen. "But you know how the rankings are -- they're only as important as people make them, and they don't really mean anything until the last game."

In the meantime, unbelievable seems way too weak a word to describe the situation, which practically begs for someone to cue up Jim Mora's famous "playoffs" rant and insert "UConn" for "playoffs."


Don't talk about UConn?

You kiddin' me? UConn?

No kiddin', the Huskies have beaten Louisville and South Florida back-to-back, becoming the latest Big East team to be fitted for a glass slipper.

Earlier this season, Cincinnati and South Florida were the league's feel-good stories. Last year, it was Rutgers, which visits Rentschler Field on Saturday (ESPNU, 7:15 p.m. ET) with a chance to spoil UConn's party.

A victory could thrust the Huskies into the top 10?

You kiddin' me?

Perhaps the only man in America not befuddled by this is UConn's ninth-year head coach, Randy Edsall, who had a conference record of 6-14 coming into the season.

"You know, I'm not surprised," Edsall said. "I think one of the things is, we've been able to stay healthy. The last two years we really had to battle the injury bug. We're getting good play on defense. We're solid in the special teams, and offensively we're making plays and not turning the ball over [only 10 times in eight games]. When you do that in football, I think you have a chance to win."

A graduate of the Tom Coughlin School of Producing Politically Correct Quotes, Edsall goes out of his way to water down the hype, but he did admit the 22-15 victory over then-No. 10 South Florida was the biggest in school history.

Andy Baylock will vouch for that. Few, if any, are more steeped in Connecticut sports history than Baylock, the school's director of football alumni and community affairs. He's been involved in Huskies athletics for 43 years, most as head baseball coach, and is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

But back in 1964, Baylock was an assistant football coach on a staff that included Lou Holtz, Sam Rutigliano and a few others who would go on to bigger things, so the man knows a good coach when he sees one. He saw one the instant Edsall arrived on campus, fresh from a year as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator and three as Coughlin's defensive backs coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I remember the day Randy got here, I saw that big, positive smile and I said, 'I like this guy,'" recalled Baylock, who was still coaching baseball at the time. "He's a man who will not compromise his integrity to get the job done. He's very tough, but very fair. I love being around the guy, and I'm around him every day. He's the real deal."

That said, Baylock, 69, and Edsall, 49, would be the first to tell you that UConn's renaissance is about the players. Baylock remembers the all-star coaching staff in the '60s staying together for two years under Rick Forzano but producing a meager 7-10-1 record playing in the old Yankee Conference.

"You look at the staff we had, and it tells you God could be coaching, but you better have guys who can play," Baylock said. "We used to recruit guys, and they'd say, 'UConn -- isn't that in Alaska?'"

Now, it's mostly outsiders who have questions about the program.

Questions like, "Who are these guys?"

The Huskies didn't have a single player on last season's All-Big East first team. They have several candidates this year. Here are four players among the many you'll be hearing about if the winning continues:

" Lorenzen walked on at Iowa State two years ago but was moved to wide receiver, prompting him to transfer to Palomar (Calif.) Community College. The 6-foot-5, 223-pound juco All-American put up huge numbers there last season, attracting the interest of several major colleges. UConn had an immediate opening. Lorenzen has radically upgraded a position that had been unstable ever since Dan Orlovsky left for the NFL three years ago.

"You can see, even if this is his first year starting, that the kid's been around," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. "He was very efficient against us and didn't do anything to hurt his team."

Lorenzen has completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,583 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Last year, UConn's quarterbacks completed 51.4 percent of their passes for 14 TDs, 12 interceptions and 1,692 yards.

He also can make plays with his feet, as evidenced by his four games of 40 or more rushing yards.

" Redshirt sophomore tailback Andre Dixon began the year as a backup but has become UConn's go-to guy. He is third in the Big East in all-purpose yards per game (132.5), trailing only Rutgers' Ray Rice and West Virginia's Steve Slaton.

Lightly recruited out of New Brunswick (N.J.) High, the dreadlocked Dixon has infused the program with a major shot of energy. Fans have begun to wear dreadlocked wigs and tote signs that read, "Dreads."

Defenders certainly dread Dixon.

"He runs really, really hard," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

" Senior linebacker Danny Lansanah, a team captain, sparks a defense that is ranked 10th in the country. He has a team-leading 10 tackles for loss. His 26-yard interception return on the third play of the game at Pitt set up UConn's first touchdown in a 34-14 victory. He had 15 tackles and an interception in the victory over Louisville.

" Redshirt freshman linebacker Scott Lutrus had no other Division I-A offers coming out of Brookfield (Conn.) High, where he was a star running back. Lutrus already has four of UConn's nation-leading 18 interceptions. He returned one 23 yards for a touchdown against South Florida.

Some believe UConn's record is tainted because of controversial officiating decisions that helped it beat Temple and Louisville. Others don't take the Huskies seriously because their nonconference victories were against Duke, Maine, Akron and Temple. Their lone loss was at Virginia, 17-16, on Oct. 13.

"I can't sway their opinions," Lorenzen said of the critics. "To me, if that's how they want to look at it, that's fine. All I know is we're finding ways to win games."

Adds Dixon: "I just hope people keep talking trash about us."

After Rutgers, the Huskies play at Cincinnati and at home against Syracuse before finishing the season Nov. 24 at West Virginia.

That last one could be for the Big East championship.

No kiddin'.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.