In what turned out to be one of the most disappointing seasons in UConn football history, the year came to a merciful end on Saturday when the Huskies put a beating on a woeful Memphis team that looked less than interested in playing their final game of the year in frigid East Hartford.
Give UConn and Interim Head Coach TJ Weist a lot of credit. The Huskies, after a dismal 0-9 start, ended the year on a three-game winning streak and were able to squeeze some residue of positivity out of a season that was oozing negativity right from the very first snap of the very first game back in August.
Yes, all of it must be tempered by the fact that UConn won their only three games of the year against arguably the worst teams in the American (besides UConn that is) and the nation as a whole. If you weren't convinced of that, watching Memphis play for 15 minutes should have hammered home the point.
And yes, the most encouraging thing to come out of this season-the play of quarterback Casey Cochran-came against those same putrid teams, raising the question of whether Cochran's impressive four-game stint was more about him or his competition. Yet, no matter who the opponent was, Cochran certainly seemed to pass the smell test, and he did it with an A+ on Saturday afternoon. It wasn't just the eye-popping statistics (461 passing yards, 4 touchdowns). It was also the poise he continued to show in the pocket and the precision passing that has been very consistent since he took over as a starter. Cochran's first touchdown pass to Deshon Foxx was flawless-an 18-yard strike just over the outstretched hands of the defender. It was laid in there with the skill of a veteran quarterback.
Sure, Cochran was helped out by a bad Memphis defense at times. For instance, on the second drive of the game, the Tigers had at least two legit chances to pick the freshman QB off, and he was almost picked off again later in the second half when he threw a ball behind Geremy Davis inside the five yard line. But those were only small hiccups on an afternoon where virtually everything else went right according to plan.
Making life easier was Davis. He was a monster on this day and continued to be UConn's best wide receiver. He put up an incredible 207 yards and one touchdown, and just seemed to out muscle any and every Memphis defender that found themselves in his path. Foxx also had an outstanding game, accounting for more than 130 yards and two touchdowns.
In a 45-10 win, there are always a lot of "atta boys" to go around, and pretty much everyone deserves serious credit. The offensive line was especially impressive protecting Cochran and really showed something as they came together in the second half of the season to become a respectable group after having been pounded the whole first half of the year. And it was bitter sweet watching Yawin Smallwood play another stellar game on defense, because it was pretty much a guarantee that he was playing his last game as a Husky, something he confirmed right after the game by declaring for the draft.
However, no one deserves more credit than Weist, who kept this team playing hard and moving forward, even when they were 0-9. They could have easily quit, and looked like they were about to when they fell behind Temple 21-0. But that second-half comeback against the Owls really set UConn on a road to playing well, and they were able to get better from there. The ultimate test for a head coach is how hard his players play for him, and Weist certainly passed that test.
But the reality is UConn was a lowly 3-9 this season without one quality, signature win to its name. Its best game of the year was a loss at home to Michigan. Not. Good.
So the future begins now. Reports are UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel will begin interviewing for a new head coach today. I would suspect a decision will be made pretty quickly after that. Look at how fast other teams filled their coaching vacancies after last week, when a lot of programs finished their year. It seemed that, within hours, everyone from Miami of Ohio to USC had made their hires.
By now we know the names. I think Weist deserves to at least get an interview but I can't see him being named. He did some really nice things at the end of the season, but UConn needs someone fresh to come in and take the bad taste of this season and the Paul Pasqualoni debacle out of the program's mouth. Whether it's fair or not, hiring Weist would seem like an admission that UConn couldn't do any better.
They need someone that will excite and envigorate this fan base. Weist won't do that. Who will? No idea. Personally I've always loved Pat Narduzzi, well before his name began popping up as being connected to UConn. If you're drawing up what UConn needs, Narduzzi fits the bill. He's young, energetic, from Connecticut, has recruited in the northeast before, comes from a Big 10 program, and is highly respected within the college game. Hiring Narduzzi would not only give UConn one of the most promising young coaches in the game, but it would also signal to the rest of the country that the Huskies have something to offer.
However, I have a hard time believing Narduzzi won't have some better options than UConn (his defense just helped Michigan State pull off the upset win over Ohio State) and I would assume he will be highly sought after beginning this week. Maybe a New Haven boy desperately wants to come back home, but I doubt it.
That's just my personal preference, though. Whoever Warde Manuel picks, all that matters is that he turns out to be the right choice. It could be a former NFL coach like Eric Mangini, or up-and-coming coordinator like Narduzzi, a retread coach like Houston Nutt, or some obscure coach none of us have ever heard of before. Doesn't matter. All that matters is that the guy is passionate about turning UConn around, believes this program can ultimately be a winner, and is dedicated to the future.
Oh, and he has to be really good at his job.
Because that's what is important right now: the future. Yes, there were a few rays of sunshine that peaked through over these last three games, and it's nice to know that the Huskies might actually have a decent quarterback on their hands going forward. But the truth is this season needs to be filed away under the "just don't think about it" category ... and the program needs to start fresh. I would suspect that, within the next couple of days, we'll know the name of the man taking UConn into that future.
Hopefully, it's a name that inspires confidence, even excitement. Whoever it is, however, they inherit a fanbase that's hoping for better days ahead but needs a reason to believe. Faith, for us hardened New England fans, is hard to come by some times. UConn can be a very good football school. I believe that. I know the fans want and will support a winner. Now's the time to start building that winner.
The future begins now. Hopefully it's a bright one.