Sat, Nov 27, 2004 - Page 20 News List

UConn adjusts to playing football in top NCAA division

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PISCATAWAY, NEW JERSEY

In postgame interviews at Rutgers Stadium, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall paused for a moment and reflected on that day in December 1998 when he began the daunting task of guiding Connecticut from a Division I-AA program to Division I-A.

His voice cracked momentarily as he digested UConn's 41-35 victory over Rutgers on Thursday before 20,224 fans. "I think it's monumental," Edsall said. "This is another milestone. It seems like we just keep having milestones upon milestones."

The victory finished a 7-4 season for the Huskies, who went 3-3 in their first season in the Big East and will play in their first bowl game. Their most likely destination is the Continental Tire Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The game offered a portrait of one program on the rise and the other still toiling. In only three years in Division I-A, the Huskies have rocketed past the Scarlet Knights (4-7, 1-5), who lost five straight games to end the season.

Standing a few feet from Edsall was the Connecticut athletic director, Jeff Hathaway, who smiled broadly. Hathaway said Connecticut's journey began in 1993 when the athletic department approached the university's trustees with the idea of going to Division I-A.

From there, Connecticut passed a series of benchmarks, which included an invitation to the Big East in football and the state Legislature's approval of a stadium in East Hartford, which opened for the 2003 season.

The Huskies sealed the victory Thursday when a Rutgers fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 16 seconds remaining. "Its an incredible feeling, you can't even explain it," Hathaway said. "Sometimes I'm standing here and you get so excited that you can't even show it."

Despite the losing streak and a career record of 12-34 in four seasons, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano spun the optimism that has become a hallmark of his tenure.

Schiano, who at 38 is the youngest Division I-A coach, arrived declaring his mission was to keep the state's top players in New Jersey. In an effort to cultivate recruiting in South Florida, the university paid for billboards there featuring James Gandolfini, the Rutgers graduate who stars in "The Sopranos."

But for all the braggadocio, there have been scant results. Schiano pointed to injuries -- a car accident after the Scarlet Knights beat Temple to improve to 4-2 that resulted in three reserve defensive backs missing the season, and losing last season's leading receiver, Shawn Tucker, in the second week of the season. Schiano still sees a bright future.

"I'm extremely positive," he said. "I've never been more sure in my time at Rutgers that we're going to be a very successful program here."

When addressing how Connecticut has managed to pass Rutgers, Schiano noted that Edsall has been coaching there two years longer and had an easier sales pitch to recruits.

"What's easier?" Schiano said. "Recruiting for an up-and-coming program that's going to be in Division I and the Big East, or recruiting in a place that's having a real tough time? Connecticut was beating Rutgers on kids when they were still I-AA."

Connecticut's final touchdown drive epitomized why it beat Rutgers. The Huskies dominated up front, allowing the reserve tailback Chris Bellamy to run through gaping holes. The Huskies capped the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Dan Murray, whom Rutgers defenders ignored over all day. Murray finished with six catches, 135 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs.

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