Think about this. The last time that UConn (0-7, 0-3) won a football game was against Louisville…on November 24, 2012.
"If feels forever [ago]," linebacker and tri-captain Yawin Smallwood said. "This is a great opportunity for us just to go out there and showcase what we have. We haven't done that a lot this season."
The season thus far has been disappointing for the Huskies, who have fallen hard after their shocking 23-20, triple-overtime win over then-No. 19 Louisville last year. The only game that they have played well in this year, however, was against then-No. 14 Michigan on September 21, when they gave up the lead late to lose 24-21 on an ABC-televised game.
UConn will face No. 20 Louisville on Friday at 8:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field. The game will be aired on ESPN2. For a team that played well with all of the hype and attention that they received earlier in the season against the Wolverines, this game represents a chance for redemption. Make no mistake, however. This is an entirely new season, with two very different teams and an uncertain outcome.
"We're starting over this Friday night. We don't look back at our previous seven games [and] we don't look back at last year. We look at our confidence that we've built in this past week," interim head coach T.J. Weist said. "Last year's game means nothing, because it's last year."
This year's UConn team does not sport the same defensive tenacity as last year's top tier squad. The past two weeks they have struggled against explosive quarterbacks, giving up 300 passing yards and four touchdowns to Cincinnati's Brendon Kay, and 286 yards and four touchdowns to UCF's Blake Bortles. This week they face perhaps their most dangerous opponent yet in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, who is expected to go very high in the first round of the NFL Draft if he continues on the same pace.
"Look at their overall efficiency as an offense. They're No. 1 in third-down efficiency on offense, and you don't do that without having a quarterback that's smart, that makes good decisions, that's athletic, [that's] all of those things," Weist said.
The challenge for UConn's defense will be finding a way to disrupt an efficient quarterback, and disrupt him quickly. In their losses against Cincinnati and UCF, the Huskies have found themselves in 27-3 and 45-10 halftime deficits, respectively. For a team that prides itself on its defensive prowess, that sort of let-up is unacceptable. It comes down to the fundamentals.
"We're lacking in execution No. 1, which is obvious; No. 2, physicality. We don't think that we controlled the line of scrimmage in the majority of our games, especially against Central Florida. We have to improve our physicality overall - offense, defense and special teams," Weist said.
The defense will be led as always by Smallwood, who was recently named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation's top linebacker. Despite their weak performances, Smallwood believes that the defense still has a lot left to prove, starting with Louisville.
"They're a very talented group of guys, but it doesn't scare me, it doesn't scare this defense at all, one bit," Smallwood said.
UConn's defense will have to shut down an offense that is No. 11 in passing offense and No. 16 in total offense in the FBS. On the other side, UConn's offense will have to regroup against the No. 2 ranked total defense - no small task for a true freshman quarterback coming off of a tough performance.
Tim Boyle was only 7-of-21 for 47 yards and two interceptions against UCF, which entered the game as the No. 6 ranked total defense. Although Weist is preaching patience with his young signal-caller, he is not pampering Boyle.
"I think it's a constant process with him, as [with] any young player, to learn from your past mistakes and then try to put them into situations [in practice]," Weist said.
Boyle will have to use the bye week to his advantage, because he will be facing all sorts of pressure from the Cardinals' defensive front, especially from their defensive ends. Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin have combined for 14.5 sacks thus far out of the team's 27 total.
"They put pressure on both edges, and I think that makes the difference," Weist said. "They constantly keep pressure on you."
It will be up to offensive tackles Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend to stifle the pressure from the outside to give Boyle time to make the right reads. Boyle must also take a step forward, because although Weist has confidence in his young starter, no one's job is safe on this team.
"We're not locked in to almost any position," Weist bluntly stated. That includes the quarterback position.
For a team trying to regain its pride, a televised game against a ranked opponent would not appear to be the best scenario. If the past is any indication, however, this team has the ability to play up to its competition. The Huskies will need to harness all of the physicality and intensity that they can summon to shock Louisville for the second straight year. For UConn, this game, and the remaining games left on their schedule, is all about changing a losing atmosphere.
"We've got players that have a lot of personal pride and intensity and they're embarrassed to be 0-7. They're embarrassed at some of the products we've put on the field," Weist said. "The minute we get a win, it's going to change the whole outlook of this team, because our team needs to learn how to win."