On a Thursday night in front of 40,000 screaming fans and a national television audience on ESPN, UConn beat eventual conference champion Pitt for its first Big East conference victory.
This was the moment UConn officials had envisioned when they began the incredible undertaking of moving from the Yankee Conference to the Big East – a Thursday night home game against Pitt on ESPN.
In retrospect, it should have been a sign that the Big East was always doomed to fail. UConn’s arrival in the conference was bumped up a year because Miami and Virginia Tech left. The conference played the 2004 season with only 7 teams. The reinforcements came a year later with Louisville, Cincinnati and USF but the perception battle was never going to be won – especially once ESPN got angered over the conference turning down its TV deal.
On that night, no one had any idea that UConn would be playing the Big East’s eventual BCS representative. The 2004 Pitt team, in my opinion, is the worst of the BCS era – a team so bad that Utah barely broke a sweat in demolishing them and saw its coach depart immediately afterward. They were not good.
Pitt came into the game 2-1, having suffered only a tough loss at home to Nebraska. UConn was 3-1, having suffered only a difficult loss at Boston College that would top my list of "horrible UConn football road trips I made" in the past decade.
What I remember most vividly about this game was the ferocious, borderline frightening, sound the UConn student section made all game long. There was one point in the first half where Pitt was backed up deep in its own territory in front of the UConn students and it felt like the students were going to climb over the wall in an effort to rip Pitt QB Tyler Palko’s head off.
The crowd noise certainly played a huge factor as Pitt had five false-start penalties, including two in a row inside their own five-yard line. They never got comfortable and the Rent, for the first time, showed what a homefield advantage it could provide when the stands were packed.
This, by no means, is to insinuate that the Huskies ran away from Pitt. The game was a tight back-and-forth affair driven by defense. Pitt held a 17-16 lead midway through the third quarter. Finally, UConn broke through and took a 23-17 lead. They scored another touchdown in the fourth quarter and Pitt never really threatened again.
Not only had UConn won their first Big East game – they did so rather comfortably at the end. This wasn’t a miracle or a nail-biter. This was a team proving to be better than the opposition.
The final minutes ticked away and it truly felt like validation, for everything. For the forethought of Lew Perkins. For the gamble of moving to the Big East a year early. For the hiring of Randy Edsall. For the fans that jumped two-feet in on a program with no football history.
UConn would go on to have more important Big East victories. But you never forget your first.
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