September 16, 2012
COLLEGE PARK, Md. —
Maybe there was no escaping the imposing vision of Randy Edsall, 20 feet tall on the two giant video boards at Capital One Field. Maybe there was no escaping Edsall's voice booming as Paul Pasqualoni tried to speak over the former UConn football coach during their postgame interviews.
Maybe there was no escaping any of this.
What mattered Saturday, of course, was that UConn stepped free of all distractions to escape with a 24-21 road victory over Edsall's Maryland Terrapins. What mattered most was a team hit by the bug, a defense playing under the weather, snorted, sniffled and hit back for the kind of joyful result that can go a long way in defining the character of a season.
"We had the flu," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Some couldn't play. Some played not feeling so hot. We got production from all phases. We had to get a great performance out of the defense. I'm proud of this team."
Offensive lineman Adam Masters missed the game. Linebacker Sio Moore played sick. He responded with the kind of inspired performance befitting a leader. Linebacker Yawin Smallwood — yes, he again brought the Big Wood — emerged from the locker room sniffling. He also had 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks, including a hellacious hit on freshman quarterback Perry Hills that led to a fumble and UConn field goal.
Cornerback Dwayne Gratz fell sick Friday, slept 12 hours, got up, intercepted his second pass of the season and played a stout game. The defense also had to weather the loss of cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who pulled a hamstring slightly on Thursday. Pasqualoni didn't like his plant and drive in warm-ups and didn't want to risk losing Wreh-Wilson for a month. Defensive end Jesse Joseph went down during the game with what Pasqualoni believed was an Achilles' injury. A significant potential blow.
Still, the Huskies had six sacks. They held Maryland to 205 yards. They remain among the country's statistical defensive elite.
"That's what we expect," Moore said, "sick or not sick."
So afterward here was defensive tackle Ryan Wirth. He was the one who raised eyebrows after the disappointing loss to North Carolina State by emphasizing the Huskies were going to "practice their asses off" and how it wouldn't be hard to get fired up for Edsall's Terps.
"And it wasn't," Wirth said.
Wirth is the most pleasantly surprising development of the early season. With defensive tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin gone, he said it is up to him, to rise up and be that cornerstone. He also came out of the locker room sniffling. Wirth, Smallwood, Moore and more … forget football. They should have been on a Sudafed commercial.
"A little congestion, nothing crazy, some of my teammates are pretty sick," Wirth said. "Hey, we love each other so much, a lot of time spent together. One person gets sick, everybody does. It's like family.'"
Hey, there are a lot of ways to build a family in athletics. One is to remain faithful to each other in sickness and health. Those bonds can last a long time.
"It was good to see some of the guys and to wish them well," said Edsall, who twice grew emotional in his postgame remarks about his 12 years at Storrs. "I have emotions. I don't think you are human if you don't have emotions. … I am proud of what we did there."
Moore was one of the players who approached Edsall when Hills' desperation fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
"I went up to him after the game and told him I loved him," Moore said. "He saw something in me when I didn't know I had it myself."
"He said if I ever need anything … he was like that at UConn, too, just a little tougher on me."
Moore broke into a laugh about the night in 2010 when he made 17 tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles against West Virginia. Edsall refused to give him too much credit. Said Sio couldn't handle it.
"He had nothing good to say [that night]," Moore said. "It was about being humble."
Speaking of being humbled, heading into West Virginia next weekend, do you think Edsall would like to bring along Sio to face Geno Smith?
The Terps had eight offensive yards in the first quarter. They had 72 in the second, but only 22 in the third. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the illness. Maybe Maryland, which has a number of skilled freshmen, finally made some plays. Whatever it was, the Terps had 103 yards in the fourth quarter. Yet when it mattered most, with UConn leading by three, the defense again stood tall on the last drive.
"That last drive was about ownership," Moore said. "Making a statement about what we're going to be about this year, about finishing. If you go back in the archives, we had Rutgers at Rutgers late two years ago and we let that one slip away. We didn't ever want that to happen again."
Smallwood, the sophomore, and Moore, the senior, are fast and they are furious. And evidence by that blow Smallwood delivered on Hills you can feel their hits in the press box.
"I feel like that one was a game-changing play," Smallwood said.
"I couldn't be more proud of Yawin," Moore said.
With Wreh-Wilson sidelined, the Huskies often went with three safeties. They played a 3-4 front at times, too. The linebackers, meanwhile, remain easy to spot and are up for lots of praise these days. They deserve it.
"But when linebackers are making those number of tackles, usually that means the guys up front are playing pretty decent, [the offensive line] is spending a lot time with two people on one guy and not getting to the linebackers quick enough," Pasqualoni said. "You talk about Yawin. Ryan Wirth has put together three [good games] in a row, too."
Smallwood and Moore were right there with their coach to jump on the defensive line bandwagon.
"Those guys have been playing great all year," Smallwood said. "I feel like they're not getting enough credit."
Said Moore: "They are able to defeat a lot of those offensive linemen by themselves. That helps keep the second level free and able to move around."
Wirth wasn't going to let that kind of praise go unrewarded.
"When it's crunch time and everybody's sucking wind," Wirth said, "I know [Moore and Smallwood] are coming in and making a big play."
Pasqualoni insisted the Huskies handled everything leading into the game against their former coach "big league." They remained focused. They didn't let the media storyline become their story. He said he saw a growing maturity. But this love Wirth was talking about, wow, this win might have brought this team together in a way they hadn't expected. It was enough to make those teammates sniffle and their former coach cry.
College Park, MD
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