EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen took a minute before the game to tell Donald Brown that the Huskies would really need him this game.
Brown said he knew it. And he delivered.
The running back totaled 154 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown run and a career-long 70-yard run, and spurred the Huskies to a 38-19 victory over Rutgers at Rentschler Field Saturday night.
It was the second consecutive year Brown ran through the Scarlet Knights and managed to upstage preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Ray Rice in the process. Last season, Brown, in his first game as a starter, ran for a total of 199 yards while Rice picked up 72. Rice totaled 116 yards Saturday night.
Unlike last season, however, Brown came off the bench, emerging for his first carry as the featured back midway through the third quarter. Andre Dixon, who started the game and managed 35 yards on 10 carries, pulled up lame at the conclusion of one play and forced head coach Randy Edsall to put Brown in the game.
Dixon's health, and availability for next week's game at Cincinnati, was uncertain after the game.
The runs were especially important as Brown, who went down with an ankle injury after the Akron game, did not play at Virginia and saw just five and one attempts against Louisville and USF, respectively, in the past two weeks.
"Personally, this was a big confidence boost. I was pretty down, especially after the Louisville game," said Brown, who gave up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown for the Cardinals. "At the beginning of the season, I feel I was pressing a lot, trying to hit the home run shot too much. I mean, that's not how I run, that's not who I am."
"That goes to show you what kind of young man he is," Edsall said. "I'm sure that he was disappointed that he hadn't been able to do some of the things that he had to do, but we always knew that he would come back."
The Huskies (8-1, 4-0 Big East) totaled 256 yards rushing against the Scarlet Knights and also tallied 140 yards through the air. And while they managed to score just three touchdowns, including the one rushing touchdown by Brown, they were buoyed by strong play on special teams.
Tony Ciaravino netted three field goals – the first from 43 yards in the first quarter, and two in the fourth from 30 yards and 26 yards – and a kickoff return 97 yards for a touchdown by Tyvon Branch in the second quarter to push the score to 25-16 in favor of UConn.
"We had a lot of big plays," Branch said. "Mine was just one of them. I definitely felt like I just helped the team, and that's what it's about, picking each other up."
Perhaps most important early on, however, was a safety just 1:05 into the game when when D.J. Hernandez broke through the line and blocked a Jeremy Ito punt attempt from the Rutgers 20-yard line. The result was a safety, the second of the season for the Huskies, and it marked the first blocked punt for a safety since Dwaun Black did the same against Kent State in 2004.
UConn also managed to stay afloat by not only holding down Rice, but also forcing Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel to throw the ball. Teel, who finished 32-for-54 with one interception but was just 19-for-31 before the Scarlet Knights opened up the game in the fourth quarter, finished with 343 passing yards, a season high.
Edsall said after the game he was especially pleased with the way his team handled the Knights' offense, especially by zoning in on Rice and preventing him from stretching the field. Only once did Rice break a sizeable run: he managed to pick up 45 yards in the first quarter on the team's second possession, and would have gone further had wide receiver Tiquan Underwood not gotten called for a 15-yard personal foul on the play.
"We said that if they're going to beat us, they're going to throw the ball to beat us," Edsall said.
Lorenzen finished the game 10-for-21 with 140 yards and two touchdowns and also managed to rush five times for 67 yards, including a 22-yard run to close out the third quarter. Leading all receivers was tight end Steve Brouse, who totaled 55 yards and one touchdown on four catches.
The win, which keeps UConn in the driver's seat in the Big East championship race with a perfect, 4-0 record, was also important because the Huskies managed to win each game in their three-game midseason homestand. They will attempt to continue that success against Cincinnati next week, which beat USF, 38-33 Saturday afternoon.
For many prognosticators, the 8-1 record the Huskies currently hold is surprising. Edsall essentially admitted the same after the game as well.
"I knew we were going to be a better football team this year," Edsall said. "I knew that. But I couldn't sit there and tell you that we were going to win this many games."
Zac Boyer covers UConn sports for Rivals.com. He can now be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.