A 2-9 team heading into their final game would not appear from an outside perspective to have much left to play for. That is not the case though for the UConn Huskies (2-9, 2-5) as they prepare for their final game of the season at Rentschler Field against the Memphis Tigers (3-8, 1-6) on Saturday at 1 p.m.
A win against Memphis would make it three straight for interim head coach T.J. Weist and the senior class, both of whom have faced adversity head on and finally conquered it the past two weeks.
"We were 0-9 going into the Temple game, and it could have been so easy for them [the seniors] to just stop right there and give up on this program, give up on this team, but they didn't, and they kept fighting," redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Cochran said.
The phrase "overcoming adversity" most aptly describes the 2013 UConn football season. When head coach Paul Pasqualoni was fired just four games into the season after a 41-12 drubbing at the hands of Buffalo, the team had to regroup. Weist, the team's offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at the time, was promoted to the interim position, and had two weeks to prepare for his first game running the show.
It was not a pretty start, as UConn lost an ugly game to USF before getting crushed against three teams that are all either currently ranked or receiving votes in Cincinnati, No. 16 UCF and No. 19 Louisville. During that 0-4 start to his head-coaching career, Weist elected to go with true freshman Tim Boyle as his quarterback.
The transition to a new coach and quarterback was painfully evident in UConn's 13-10 loss to USF, as the wide receiving corps and Boyle stumbled through mistimed routes and passes, resulting in a number of drops. Weist also mismanaged the game clock at the end of the fourth quarter, eliminating the chance for a long field goal to tie the game.
Despite the mounting losses, however, his players and coaches never appeared to give up on him or his "All In" mantra.
"A coach could easily give up just like a player can on the season, but our guys have not done that. They've worked hard, they've been loyal to the university, loyal to me, us, and our staff and to this team," Weist said.
Their loyalty may not have paid off immediately, but Weist demonstrated the ability to make tough position changes and take chances. After the team's debilitating 31-10 loss to Louisville, Weist inserted Cochran as his new starting quarterback.
Cochran and the Huskies' offense could not get the job done against SMU in his first start, but they did score 21 points. Against Temple the next week, it appeared like the Huskies of old had returned as Temple jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead. The disappointing first half lit a fire under the team, however, and they came out firing in the second half, scoring 28 unanswered points to earn their first win.
Cochran and company did it again last week, defeating Rutgers 28-17 despite finding themselves down 17-14 in the fourth quarter. They used a defining eight play, 80-yard drive to take the lead, and then iced the game later on another solid scoring drive.
Although he has received most of the attention for the team's recent success, Cochran was quick to redirect the praise to the men up front who protect him.
"It's the nature of the business, but I think offensive linemen deserve a lot more credit than they get," Cochran said. "On every one of my pass plays, if my linemen didn't hold up one of those guys on defense, then they're going to come take my head off."
The offensive line will say goodbye to four senior starters after the season. They were much maligned at the beginning of the season for the team's failure, but instead of folding, the unit improved their play and has been critical in the offense's revival. The camaraderie among the men in the trenches has helped them through the highs and lows during their careers at UConn.
"These are my best friends on the team. We've been together for four-and-a-half, five years now," tri-captain and redshirt senior left guard Steve Greene said. "We come out every day ready to work, ready to grind through it all to get everything right."
With a renewed running game thanks to improved blocking up front and the emergence of Max DeLorenzo as a productive change-of-pace back, Cochran and the offense have flourished at the tail end of the season. They will have to prove how far they have come one final time against a Memphis defense that has been ranked in the top 20 nationally, and currently sits at No. 27 in total defense. For the offensive linemen, especially the seniors, the challenge provides another chance to play for pride.
"They've made a decision as a group that they were going to keep guys off of our quarterback," Weist said. "They haven't been responsible for a sack since Cincinnati."
The defensive front will also be losing a number of seniors, including Jesse Joseph, Tim Willman and tri-captain Shamar Stephen. The defense as a whole have improved their play after that tough three-game stretch against ranked AAC opponents, and have played a key role in the team's wins. They, too, will look to finish off strong and send the seniors off on a three-game winning streak.
"I feel like there's a lot more confidence on the team. I feel that people are playing with expectations," Stephen said. "Winning games builds confidence."
Although Weist and his staff have not been given a timetable for a decision on where the program will go from here in regards to the next full-time head coach, he is focused on improving the team's record to 3-5 under his reign and sending off the seniors with a sense of accomplishment. After all, winning is the best way to stick around and also heals the pains of a tough beginning to the season.
"We want to finish it off right for them, and give those seniors momentum for the rest of their lives knowing that they were a big part of putting something together at the end, overcoming adversity," Weist said. "The bottom line is that we've won some games, and we'd like to win one more."