Football Preview Weekish: Rhode Island

Really, what chance does the ram have against that ferocious Husky?

Really, what chance does the ram have against that ferocious Husky?

As part of TheUConnBlog’s 2009 football Season Preview Week, we’re rolling out the position primers and opponent capsules. Today, we look at the Huskies’ fourth opponent: the Rhode Island Rams.

Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Victory Bell. The Keg of Nails. The Jeweled Shillelagh. The Ramnapping Trophy.

All are monuments to the idiosyncratic history of college football, representing fierce rivalries deciding which college town, state or even region reigns supreme. If you’re a college football fan, you’ve probably either heard of these things or could name the teams that play for them. And if you’re really a college football fan, you tried to steal Floyd of Rosedale as part of a zany scheme to be reinstated to your college (To any prospective Hollywood screenwriters out there, that one’s a freebie).

Well, chances are you haven't heard of that last one. Because while the history of college football is filled with the stories of legends at schools like USC, Notre Dame and Slippery Rock, New England is known for its insular football culture, which has mostly shunned big time pigskin until very recently.

Which means practically no one knows the story of the Ramnapping Trophy, contested between UConn and Rhode Island, which is probably the biggest/only tradition in UConn football history, and which no longer exists. And that’s too bad.

Yes, for all you newbies out there, UConn football wasn’t always the glitz and glamour of Rentschler Field, the East Hartford air crackling with booze and barbeque from fans who won’t be into the stadium until midway into the first quarter. It used to be much cooler. (Note – I am an enormous history nerd. Your mileage may vary on the coolness of 1930’s UConn trivia.)

Back when UConn (then Connecticut State) was made up of a bunch of farm animals, easily-flammable residential halls, and the occasional electric light bulb, the then-Aggies’ top rivals were the Rhode Island Rams. Both were charter members of the Yankee Conference and, being state schools 60 miles apart, natural foes. To this day, Rhode Island remains the most-played series in UConn football history – the 2009 game will be the 94th.

UConn football teams of the period ranged from the good (6-0-2 in 1924, 7-1 in 1926) to the dreadful (1-14-5 from 1931 through the end of the 1933 season). If the Aggies had a good season, it was a good bet that they beat Rhody, and if C-State sucked, they'd probably lose. Today, we might call this the "Syracuse litmus test." In 1934, it just so happened that the as-yet-unnamed-Huskies were not so good.

They dropped six of their first seven games, suffering five shutout losses, prior to the Nov. 10 season-ender at home against the Rams. That week, the campus received word that URI was planning on bringing its live ram mascot, Ulysses, to Storrs to taunt the Connecticut State faithful.

And so the lovable scallywags of Storrs decided that the best way to get the Rams’ goat (see what I did there?) was to up and steal Ulysses. Which they did. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the actual ramnapping, but apparently all 10 people that lived in Rhode Island were too busy to guard the damn thing.

With future mutton in hand and school pride soaring, ConnState valiantly marched … to a 19-0 home loss to hated Rhody, and a 1-7 finish. OK, so it’s a cool story until that point. On the other hand, according to Mark J. Roy’s UConn history book, this led to campus journalists realizing that "Aggies" was a lame nickname and leading the charge in selecting a new one. In the spirit of those freewheeling times, they went with "Unchaste Huskies" and, apart from one minor change, the rest was history.

Behold.

Behold.

In 1935, it became a legit rivalry, with a prize and everything. Thus, the Ramnapping Trophy (above) was born. In 1936, Connecticut State won the trophy for the first time, 33-0 in Kingston. UConn being awesome and Rhode Island being a backwater school in a territory that barely qualifies as a state (TheUConnBlog is never one to let good, solid hate fade away), the Huskies dominated the series for the remainder of the 20th century.

UConn won 40 of the final 63 Ramnapping Trophy games, and after a 20-9 win in the 1999 edition, its last as a member of the Atlantic-10, UConn kept the trophy and moved it to its permanent residence in the Husky Heritage Sports Museum on the Storrs campus. Then, in 2000, UConn moved up to Division I-A (and, oddly, lost to URI). In moving to the bright lights of a BCS conference, old mom-and-pop traditions like the Ramnapping Trophy had to be cast aside.

With the Rams on UConn’s schedule for the second time since 2000, feel free to gather your kids around the ol’ camp fire and tell them this story. The rivalry may not have been much in the grand scheme of college football, but damn it, it was our little ball of hatred. Such an organic, natural rivalry is what UConn football is missing these days, which is why I suggest we kidnap Greg Schiano’s taxpayer-funded helicopter post haste.

And it sure as hell will beat talking about the actual game UConn and Rhody will play – almost certainly a meaningless exhibition filled with carnage that will resonate throughout all 12 square miles of Rhode Island territory.

Opponent: Rhode Island

Date/site of game: Sept. 26, at Rentschler Field

Time/TV of game: Noon, no TV announced

Coach: Joe Trainer (1st season)

Team site: http://www.gorhody.com/sports/m-footbl/uri-m-footbl-body.html

Fan Forum: None I could find. Maybe there’s a burgeoning community at the ProJo?

2008 record: 3-9 (1-7 CAA / 5th place, North Division)

Notable wins: 37-13 vs. Brown (Oct. 4)

Notable losses: 42-0 at Boston College (Sept. 27); 44-7 vs. Villanova (Oct. 18; Dante Cunningham scored 18 points and grabbed 9 rebounds); 49-0 vs. UMass (Nov. 1)

All-time series: UConn leads, 50-35-8

Last game in series: UConn 52, Rhode Island 7 (Aug. 31, 2006 at Rentschler Field)

Returning starters (offense): 8

Key players (offense): WR Shawn Leonard (44 rec, 647 yds, 5 TD), WR Joe Bellini (43 rec, 499 yds, 2 TD)

Returning starters (defense): 9

Key players (defense): LB Matt Hansen (111 tkls, 3 sacks, 3 INT)

2009 outlook in 50 words or less: Looks like Rhody runs some variant of the spread, and they have most of their 2008 squad back. On the other hand, they lost a two-year starter at quarterback and they play in a rugged I-AA conference. .500 is probably a best-case scenario.

The Huskies win if: An asteroid does not hit the East Hartford area at any point before Sept. 26, 2009.

The Boneyard melts down if: Rhode Island scores a touchdown.

Bottom line: This game is sort of an embarrassment. As you can tell by my above application to be a Connecticut museum tour guide, I like tradition, and I understand that Randy Edsall wants to play the I-AA New England schools in a nod to that tradition. But UConn really can do better than this if they wanted to.

In the CAA alone, any number of teams would be at least slightly competitive and a more interesting opponent. UMass, New Hampshire, Villanova, Hofstra – all are solid I-AA teams with playoff aspirations, and each brings a similar New England/Big East/Northeast connection with them. Not to mention James Madison or Richmond, who are each good enough to win at least the Sun Belt.

Playing Rhode Island is like showing up to college parties at 30. Yeah, it was fun when you danced to "Big Willie Style" 12 years ago, and we’ll always remember the good times we had talking about the Clinton impeachment trial in the common room, but now it’s just weird.

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