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UConn football looking for constants as season begins

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published August 29. 2013 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni and his team will open the season at 7:30 tonight with a game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, meeting Towson University. The Huskies will look for consistency, Pasqualoni said, after back-to-back 5-7 seasons.

Starting in tonight's season opener, UConn begins its search for consistency.

The Huskies lost their way during the previous two football seasons, posting back-to-back 5-7 records and suffering through numerous mistake-prone performances.

They firmly believe they'll accomplish their mission this season, leading to a winning campaign and their first bowl appearance since 2010.

They'll attempt to take the first step toward their goal tonight (7:30, no TV), hosting Towson University at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Coach Paul Pasqualoni is optimistic that better days are ahead for the Huskies, who will play in the new American Athletic Conference this season.

"We didn't play as consistent a year ago, or even before that," Pasqualoni said. "We've kind of had the same M.O. for two years in a row here in a sense that we play really good games against quality opponents and at the same time we've had the misfortune of turning the ball over too much. Even though we've played outstanding defense, we still at times have given up a play that has hurt us when the offense is struggling.

"We've got to play a complementary game and we've got to do a better job of that than we've done over the past two years."

UConn starts off with a challenging Football Championship Subdivision opponent in Towson, which returns several talented skill players from a team that clinched a share of its second straight Colonial Athletic Association championship in 2012. Running back Terrance West, the CAA preseason offensive player of the year, is the centerpiece of a dangerous offense.

With former UConn assistant Rob Ambrose at the helm, the Tigers have grown accustomed to playing Division I teams in recent years. Last year, they held a 9-7 lead late in the first half at third-ranked LSU before losing 38-22.

Pasqualoni called Towson the toughest opening-game opponent in his three years at UConn.

"If you look at the league Towson is in, someone in this league beats an FBS team every year," Pasqualoni said. "They can play with anybody."

At times last year, UConn proved it could play with anybody. The Huskies scored significant road victories at Big East co-champion Louisville and Maryland.

But they also stumbled, committing too many turnovers (26) and scoring too few points (only 17.8 per game).

With several key offensive starters returning, including quarterback Chandler Whitmer and leading rusher Lyle McCombs, the Huskies expect to have more firepower. New offensive coordinator T.J. Weist has added a few new wrinkles.

"We're flying around," Whitmer said. "We're doing a lot of things. There's a lot of energy. We're executing things. ? I think (the running game) will be better."

Whitmer also raved about a veteran offensive line that's coming off a bumpy season. Much depends on the big men up front.

Redshirt senior left tackle Jimmy Bennett believes the line has made significant gains in the communication and chemistry departments.

"We know it wasn't the best showing last year," Bennett said. "The big thing for us is we really want to go out there and prove that we're better than we were. We have to go out and be perfectionists and execute."

They'll be severely tested right off.

Pasqualoni is concerned about Towson's pressure. Three defensive starters, including active linebacker Monte Gaddis, made the All-CAA preseason team.

"They can force you into some mistakes and we're going to have to be able to handle that pressure both in the run and in the pass game."

Once again, UConn will lean heavily on its sturdy defense. The Huskies led the Big East in total defense last season but lost seven starters including four that went in the 2013 NFL Draft. With standout linebacker Sio Moore gone, redshirt junior Yawin Smallwood has emerged as the next defensive star.

Pasqualoni should know more about where his team stands in its search for consistency after tonight's game.

"Every team is a new team and every team is unique," Pasqualoni said. "Every coach is hoping he sees the identity of a good solid tough football team that takes care of the ball, plays the game the right way, doesn't do stupid things, doesn't beat themselves, plays well on special teams, punts the ball well, kicks the ball well, covers the ball well, returns, and catches the ball on returns.

"So those are all things that I want to see."

g.keefe@theday.com

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