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UConn wins the night, not the game

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: theday.com

Published September 22. 2013 4:00AM   Updated September 22. 2013 10:40AM

East Hartford

There was the time they rushed the field here when UConn defeated South Florida, back when the Bulls were ranked and ABC was here. There have been anticipated games againstWest Virginia and BC and a Thursday night win over Pittsburgh once. Good days.

Only the diehards, though, recall the shapes and forms of games that moved the needle, sure. But never against a true brand name. That's because virtually all of UConn football's good ol' days have come far, far away.

Think about it: The first bowl victory:Detroit. Beat South Carolina in Birmingham. Notre Dame on the road in overtime, Andre Dixon scoring in the end zone nearest Field Goal Jesus. Dave Teggart's kick cut through theTampa night. The BCS happened in Glendale.

We'd never really had a moment at Rentschler Field. Until Saturday night. When we saw what this could be. When all the hopes and dreams Lew Perkins had when he ushered UConn into the deeper end became visible, audible, incredible.

Rentschler Field had its moment Saturday night. A record crowd of 42,704 hooted its way through hours of parking lot merriment and then blew the roof off the place for Michigan 24, UConn 21. The three-hour infomercial for UConn football on national television was a masterpiece, save the final score.

The residual effect of Saturday night will be this: Somewhere in the future, this night, this game, will get UConn a recruit or two from outposts that surely never had a frame of reference to UConn football like this.

This was needed. UConn fans got to flex a little. Smile a little. Talk a little. This hasn't been easy, save women's basketball. Football has struggled. Men's basketball was banned from last postseason. The American Athletic Conference is college sports' version of witness protection at the moment.

And then came the roar of Rentschler.

It roared all night, too. Until the very end when Michigan, which played like bowsers all night, emerged.

"There are no moral victories," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said after the game.

Pasqualoni, never terribly effervescent even in times of joy, was understandably despondent. He spoke of today, when he hoped the players arrived for film study with proper body language, ready for Buffalo. But the coach looked and sounded defeated. Maybe that comes from missing the chance to slay a brand name by an eyelash.

"The crowd's excitement was unbelievable. So much fun," Pasqualoni said. "The fans were great, the stadium was great, the only thing that would have made it complete was the outcome. A lot went into this. Warde (athletic director Warde Manuel), the athletic department, they put a lot into this to make it big time college football and that's what it is."

It felt big time, bigger than ever, even before kickoff. The parking lots were abuzz, not to mention awash in blue. Maize and blue, UConn blue. But the true big time part came during the game. UConn stared down Michigan. Probably should have won, what with a 21-7 lead in the third quarter.

It all sort of made the week's narrative of UConn better duck because Michigan is mad even dumber than upon first suggestion. Michigan was mad after narrowly defeating Akron. And what was UConn? Gathering daffodils after losing to Maryland? Pasqualoni was in Barbados all week while only Brady Hoke studied film and motivated his team?

Say this for Pasqualoni: Open season on him begins soon enough. Just not now. Amid rivers of negativity and predictions of 30-point losses around here, Pasqualoni and his staff prepared their players to win a game beautifully. They darn near did. When nobody saw it coming. UConn proved once again that opportunity and optimism carries you greater distances than fear and fatalism.

We saw what this could be Saturday night. We saw what they do in other parts of the country every fall Saturday. It's damn fun. And while the coming days will produce the requisite shouldas, couldas and wouldas, the UConn Huskies won the night without winning the game. We got big time football here Saturday. Biggest we'd ever seen up close. Can't wait for the next installment.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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