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After Michigan

Sure the loss was disappointing, but we have a lot to be proud of

Jim Rogash

Saturday is why we love sports. It's why we read and write about them. It's why we waste not only money, but time, energy, and eventually tears on athletes who wouldn't know our name if we fell on them, and would be more apt to sue than sign an autograph under such circumstances.

At the end of the third quarter of the UConn/Michigan game, I wasn't thinking about Towson or Maryland. Whether the Huskies represented the ACC, AAC, MAC, or Mountain West made no difference. The future of Paul Pasqualoni was inconsequential.

UConn was beating Michigan, and there was one quarter to go.

Of course, the storybook ending had it's finale scribbled out and replaced with a predictable few paragraphs. We know what happened. A terrible interception and late field goal later, UConn was suddenly faced with a 4th and 26, after a drive that had looked like so many others over the last two years—inept and ill-timed.

Chandler Whitmer, who had looked really good at times during the game, completed a pass for 23 of those 26 yards, and the game was over. Michigan had survived.

I'm not big on moral victories. To me, winning and losing is what counts. But, as Mac and Andrew so notably pointed out after the game, this loss felt strangely like a win.

When expectations are as low as they were, taking the Wolverines to the last minute of the game was all but worthy of a banner flying from the flag pole to commemorate the moment.

We can focus on what went wrong (Whitmer throwing another horrible interception and the defense, so stout for so long, letting Michigan tie and then win the game in the fourth) but I'd rather join in the chorus of congratulating the team on what went right.

Paul Pasqualoni and his crew deserve a lot of credit. I have beaten this coach up (in writing) as much as anyone, yet fair is fair. They had a great game plan to exploit Michigan's weaknesses and take advantage of UConn's strengths, and they had their less-talented roster believing from the first whistle that this was a winnable game. For a team that so often looks undercoached, this was one of those games where the players were clearly on a mission, and that mission statement came from the top. Kudos to them.

The biggest “atta boy,” however, goes to the players. We talk about “the program” and “the future” a lot on this blog (I'm about to in a minute) but all of that is built on players. These guys aren't the most talented group in the world, and for two weeks all they heard was how bad they were. They took the criticism and turned it into motivation. They represented themselves, their school, and all their fans on that field Saturday night, and they did it with pride. They played an inspired game. They played like men, and they made all of us who go to, graduated from, or root for UConn immensely proud.

Having said all of that, UConn is now 0-3 on the season and unlikely to win enough games to go to a bowl game. Maybe this win catapults them toward a winning streak, and prospects for a better season than was anticipated only a few short days ago got exponentially better after watching that performance, but the truth is that UConn is still probably heading for a difficult year.

Yet, even if the affects of this near-win don't translate into a redemption season, and even if Paul Pasqualoni still needs to be shown the door at the end of the year, what happened Saturday night should have lasting ramifications.

It showed us what UConn football can be.

Before the game, a lot of the talk was about UConn as a whole. What kind of fan base are we?

There was some really interesting conversation taking place in the comments sections of the stories on this blog, with people sharing opinions as to what UConn football can be and should be, and what role the fans should play in that.

Saturday didn't answer all those questions. It did, however, show that, in this state, with this team, if you have a big game against a meaningful opponent, you're going to get an electric atmosphere.

Before the game, I wrote that my only fear was UConn fans would be all but outnumbered, and certainly out cheered, by Michigan faithful who travel for their team about as well as any in the nation. Believing that this game would be over by halftime, I had this sickening feeling that ABC would spend their time showing a half empty stadium that was suddenly colored in Maize and Blue by the middle of the third quarter. The message would be obvious: UConn and football don't mix.

As the game approached, however, I began getting texts from a friend of mine up at the game. He was there tailgating with some work friends of his and the message he delivered was encouraging: it was a loud, excited Husky fan base that had showed up.

I watched most of the game from a bar, so the sound was off and it was hard to get a sense of the noise, but every time they flashed a glimpse of the crowd in a big moment, it seemed like the stadium was rocking. That was confirmed by my friend. That was confirmed by every story written about the game afterwards. The Rent, it appears, was electric.

We all know what RGIII said about Rentschler a few years ago, calling it the loudest crowd he'd ever heard. As Aman recently said, we've hung our hat on that for a while. What Saturday showed, however, is that such excitement doesn't have to be an isolated incident. It can happen at the Rent, it can happen at UConn, the same as it can so many other places.

UConn fans aren't allergic to football...they are allergic to bad football.

Now, the mission has to be to build off that revelation. Warde Manuel's job is to build that excitement each year—to cultivate what is already there.

Look, in places like Michigan and Notre Dame and Alabama, football is life. It doesn't matter if those programs are playing their arch rival for the national championship, or an FCS school to start the season. They show up as much for the traditions as for the games.

It's not like that at UConn. Those traditions have to be instilled. That passion has to be created.

What Saturday showed is that it can be. If you build a winning program, if you create fun traditions, if you build a game-day experience that can be as enjoyable against Buffalo as it is against Michigan, then people will come—like a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

I still think UConn needs a new direction with a new coach. One game—a loss no less—doesn't change that. And the Rent is still likely to be half empty at season's end if UConn is finishing up a bad season against a less-than-inspiring opponent. Problems are never erased with three and a third quarters of football.

But UConn showed it can have football fever. It showed the ABC-watching world what RGIII has known for years—Husky fans can rock with the best of them.

Now, Manuel has to turn that from a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence into an every-Saturday tradition.

UConn is ready for good, meaningful football. They just need someone to provide it to them.