The date's been circled on UConn's calendar since the game was first scheduled in 2009, and now the time has finally come. This weekend, No. 15 Michigan comes to East Hartford for what is undoubtably the biggest home game in UConn football history.
Though UConn's putrid start to the season – and its continued employment of Paul Pasqualoni – has put a damper on the mood going into the game, the atmosphere still figures to be electric when the game kicks off Saturday at 8 p.m. The game will also be broadcast in primetime as ABCs game of the week, meaning UConn will have an opportunity to make a major statement on the national stage and hopefully dispel some of the negativity that has gripped the program for the past two years.
But beyond just the big picture implications, it will also be a chance for the Huskies to exact a measure of revenge.
The last time these two programs met, it was in the 2010 season opener at the newly renovated Michigan Stadium for what turned out to be the highest attended college football game of all time. Unfortunately for UConn, it also turned out to be the coming out party for Mr. Shoelace himself, Denard Robinson.
Robinson torched the Huskies for 383 yards and two touchdowns by himself, leading the Wolverines to a 30-10 win while garnering himself considerable early-season Heisman buzz. Specifically, he rushed for 197 yards, setting a new school record for a QB, and went 19 for 22 through the air, carving up the Husky defense in such a way that the players had to resort to the proverbial kitchen sink to try and stop him.
"They were like, 'Take his shoe! Take his shoe!" Robinson told the AP after the game. "They took them off, one of the plays, when I ran and got a first down. They were trying to slow me down, I guess."
Robinson has since moved on to the NFL, but his successor Devin Gardner shares many of the same attributes that gave the 2010 UConn defense fits. Like Robinson, Gardner is also a versatile player and an athletic wonder – he caught four touchdowns last year as a wide receiver before moving back to quarterback after Robinson suffered an injury.
Once in place as the starter, Gardner threw for more than 1,200 yards passing and 11 touchdowns in the final five games of the year, with seven rushing touchdowns on top of that. In other words, he spent the whole season as a wide receiver before immediately transitioning to quarterback, and then proceeded to outproduce every quarterback UConn has fielded this past decade in just five games. Seriously.
This year Gardner has remained a dangerous weapon for Michigan, but his decision making has become an issue at times. So far Gardner has thrown seven touchdowns to go with six interceptions, and in last Saturday's near-catastrophe against Akron, Gardner threw three picks and fumbled the ball, giving the Zips a chance to upset the Big 10 power.
Michigan is a talented team to be sure, but it does have its flaws. Besides Gardner's tendency to make ill advised throws, the Wolverines also have an inexperienced interior offensive line and an anemic pass rush, which should come as good news for a UConn team that has had a lot of trouble getting to the other team's quarterback while protecting its own.
We'll go more in depth on what Michigan brings to the table as the week goes on, but the main thing to keep in mind this week is that this is UConn's make or break moment. You beat a nationally-ranked, brand name opponent like Michigan in front of your home fans on national television, and suddenly the whole narrative flips and UConn has a chance to turn things around. But if you lose, then you're 0-3 and looking at a long, hard road forward.