For Connecticut, the Fiesta Bowl is the culmination of a journey that started 13 years ago.
For Oklahoma, it’s simply meeting the annual minimum expectation of reaching a Bowl Championship Series game.
The Huskies could not have gotten a bigger challenge for their first appearance on college football’s biggest stage than facing the history-rich Sooners on Saturday night at Glendale, Ariz.
Connecticut’s path to Arizona began in 1997, when the school voted to accept the invite from the Big East Conference and upgrade from a I-AA program. The school built Rentschler Field after being unable to put a stadium on campus, and the transition to I-A ended in 2001.
The 25th-ranked Huskies (8-4) then joined the Big East for the 2004 season – one year early – after the Atlantic Coast Conference poached Miami and Virginia Tech in 2003. They earned their first bowl appearance that year, and the Fiesta Bowl will be their fourth consecutive postseason game.
“To get where we are in seven years in the Big East and in the 12 years since I took over is remarkable,” coach Randy Edsall said. “It’s something that I dreamed about when I got here and wanted to make a reality.
“We know we’ll be playing a tremendously skilled and athletic perennial power in Oklahoma. One of the winningest programs in college football. It’s going to be fun to compete against that type of talent and that type of program.”
There are some, though, who don’t think Connecticut warrants a spot in the BCS because the Big East is not competitive on a national level. No conference team has reached the national championship game since the Hurricanes and Hokies left for the ACC, and the Huskies – the fourth four-loss team in the BCS since its inception in 1998 – were 26th in the final standings.
“I kind of smile a little bit,” said tailback Jordan Todman, the Big East offensive player of the year. “Let them have their opinion. My goal, what I really want to do, is to go out and prove them wrong. It’s somewhat of a slap in the face that we don’t belong here or the Big East wasn’t that tough, UConn’s really not that tough. I really don’t like that. At the same time, it’s their opinion.”
No. 9 Oklahoma (11-2) is making its 12th bowl appearance in as many seasons under coach Bob Stoops and 44th overall. Its 25 victories are tied for fifth all-time, and the eighth BCS bowl appearance trails only Ohio State’s nine.
While the Sooners have shown remarkable consistency in reaching the BCS, winning those games has at times proved to be more difficult.
The Big 12 champions have lost five consecutive BCS games – two for the national championship – since winning the 2003 Rose Bowl. Two other defeats, the 2007 and 2008 Fiesta Bowls, came when the Sooners were heavy favorites before losing to Boise State and West Virginia, respectively.
“We want to prove that even though we’ve lost two times before, we are still a team that can play in the BCS,” said offensive tackle Eric Mensik, a senior who experienced both previous losses from the sideline.
Any chance UConn has of pulling off such a monumental upset rides on the legs of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Todman. The tailback had 1,574 yards with 14 TDs and is second in the nation at 143.1 yards per game.
A majority of the holes Todman ran through were provided by fellow conference first-team selections and offensive linemen Mike Ryan and Zach Hurd.
With the Sooners likely to stack the box in an attempt to slow Todman, there will be pressure on quarterback Zach Frazer to keep Oklahoma’s defense honest. The senior topped 200 yards just once this season and completed only 52.7 percent of his 222 passes for 1,202 yards and five TDs.
“If you’re not managing the game, who is?” Frazer said. “Being conservative, or anything like that, I feel like we’re just doing what works, and our game plan can vary from one game to another.”
Oklahoma has the ability to exert pressure on UConn with its offense as well. The Sooners are fourth among FBS teams in passing at 336.8 yards per game, 13th in total offense (478.1 ypg) and 17th in scoring (36.4 points per game).
Landry Jones threw for 4,289 yards and 35 touchdowns, with receiver Ryan Broyles posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. He finished with career highs of 118 receptions and 1,452 yards to go with 13 touchdowns and is Oklahoma’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs.
Five players had at least 26 receptions for the Sooners, and running back DeMarco Murray is one of them. He had 1,121 rushing yards and 14 TDs to go with 69 receptions, 595 yards and five receiving scores.
“I think DeMarco’s signature is just his versatility,” Stoops said. “He can run outside. He’s got great speed. He can pound it inside. He’s very strong, very tough, very physical. He’s got receiver hands. He’s a multiple threat guy, and that’s his biggest asset.”
No. 25 Connecticut (8-4) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma (11-2), 8:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN
- Series Record: First meeting.
What’s at Stake
Oklahoma is looking to end five-game losing streak in BCS bowls that includes two disappointing losses in the Fiesta Bowl as favorites. The Big 12 champions did win a bowl game last season, beating Stanford in the Sun Bowl. UConn is hoping to avoid a big dud in its first BCS bowl after sharing the Big East title with Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
UConn’s defense vs. Oklahoma’s offense. The Sooners like to play fast. Oklahoma churns out more plays per game than any other team in the country and will be nothing like the Huskies have seen. UConn tried all kinds of tricks in practice to simulate OU’s pace and how they handle it will likely determine whether they have a chance to prevent what could be a blowout.
Players to Watch
UConn: RB Jordan Todman. UConn was 112th nationally in passing, so much of the offense revolved around handing the ball to Todman. Even with teams knowing what was coming, the junior ran for over 1,500 yards, second-best in the country, and scored 14 TDs on his way to becoming a second-team All-American.
Oklahoma: QB Landry Jones. Taking over for Sam Bradford last season, Jones had his share of bumps, often from trying to do too much. This season, the sophomore has developed into one of the nation’s best passers, throwing for over 4,200 yards and 35 TDs, both second-best nationally.
Facts and Figures
UConn has no players from Oklahoma on its roster and the Sooners don’t have a single one from New England … Oklahoma is playing in its 12th consecutive bowl, all since Bob Stoops took over as coach … UConn is the first New England school to play in a BCS bowl … Oklahoma has two first-team All-Americans: WR Ryan Broyles and S Quinton Carter … UConn’s men’s basketball team won the NCAA West Regional at The University of Phoenix Stadium in 2009 … Oklahoma broke or tied 19 school records this season … UConn has lost nine games the past two seasons and led in the fourth quarter in six of those … The Sooners have just eight seniors, seven of whom start … The Huskies had 19 interceptions, good for fifth nationally … The roof at The University of Phoenix Stadium will be closed due to cool weather.
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