EAST HARTFORD - No one wants to go back to the 70s, least of all the UConn football team.
The Huskies went there once and hated the experience.
But ever since UConn staged that 70s show - its 70-31 loss to Memphis two weeks ago - the Husky defense has suddenly become a force to be reckoned with.
For the first five weeks of the season, the Huskies were statistically the worst defense in the country.
Of course, you didn’t need stats to tell you that. The Huskies were terrible visually, too.
But starting a week ago in Temple and continuing Saturday in a 20-14 win over Tulsa at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, the Huskies on defense have looked like a different animal.
“Extremely proud of the way they’ve stepped up and had our back and made plays,” UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said in thanks after his team’s win over the Golden Hurricane. “The leaders on that side of the ball are really stepping up.”
Part of the reason may be that first-year defensive coordinator Billy Crocker’s 3-3-5 defense has apparently taken some time for the Huskies to master.
“Any time you implement some new things, maybe fundamentals and techniques that guys might not be used to playing, I think it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable and to feel comfortable,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said.
But the bigger reason for the defense’s resurgence, and UConn’s resulting two-game winning streak is that number. Most of the UConn players didn’t think it was possible to give up 70 points in one game until it happened to them.
“Yeah, I mean you got 70 put on your head? It’s like, c’mon now. You know you’re better than that,” said Cole Ormsby, a senior defensive end from Windsor who had two of the Huskies’ season-high six sacks Saturday. “It was a wake-up.”
The Huskies woke up the following week against Temple in a 28-24 win, and then were at their peak for most of Saturday’s win. UConn shut out Tulsa for 3½ quarters, seemingly on pace for the program’s first shutout since the 2012 season-opener against UMass.
Of course, they had to hang on much as they did against Temple, too.
Not until UConn linebacker Junior Joseph knocked away a pass in the end zone on the final play was UConn (3-4, 2-3) assured of victory.
It was a stressful time for the team’s coach, who didn’t want to see what was for the most part a fantastic defensive performance wasted.
“You just hope you can make a play because the kids expended so much energy to try to get a win,” Edsall said when asked what he was thinking as Tulsa quarterback Luke Skipper’s final pass was in the air. “And you don’t want to see it come down to that situation.
“You’re dying for them. That’s what you’re doing. It’s not a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that. It puts some age on you,” Edsall said.
Edsall was stressing as the game wound down, but his players have been stressing quite a bit during their recent practices. As much as the defense’s turnaround has been a product of a renewed effort by the players, it’s been driven by Edsall and his staff.
“No matter how good you do in practice, coach is going to say it has to be a lot better,” linebacker Vontae Diggs said with a chuckle. “I think we’ve come to that conclusion as players. We think we’re having a good practice and then coach hollering ‘Not good enough! That’s not how you’re going to win!’ So I think we’ve all got on board with that mentality.”
That 70 number was part of the Huskies mentality, too, of course. It always will be, in all likelihood.
“Seventy points definitely put us in a reality check,” Joseph said. “It took everyone’s heart that night. And the next day we took a stand. We said that’s never going to happen to us again. We just went to work every day from that point on.”
As much as the Temple game counted, it was on the road. The Huskies wanted to show their home fans the Memphis game was an anomaly.
“Winning at home was a big thing for us because of what happened last time we were at home. We didn’t have a very good showing,” freshman safety Brayden Brown said.
After the Memphis game, Edsall said openly that the Huskies might not have the right personnel right now to run Crocker’s 3-3-5 - in some ways questioning his own players’ abilities. It seems those statements weren’t part of the Huskies’ motivations to improve, but Diggs said that’s irrelevant.
“Whatever he said to y’all didn’t get to us. It is what it is,” Diggs said. “It don’t matter to me who we line up against. That 70 points will never happen again. I don’t care who it is, Alabama, you name it. I don’t care.”