Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
On a rainy night last Oct. 19, the Connecticut football program came of age.
The Huskies had notched some big wins in their short Division I-A history, but beating Louisville 21-17 felt different. They had finally knocked off one of the Big East's big boys, no matter if that opponent was a little down.
"Even though they only finished 6-6 last year, they still had Brian Brohm and were very impressive on film," UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus said. "So if you beat Louisville, you know you're a good football team. That was definitely a springboard for us. It gave us some momentum and some confidence."
That win was the start of a three-game stretch in which the Huskies also beat South Florida and Rutgers, all at home. They went on to capture a share of the Big East regular-season title.
UConn (4-0) opens league play Friday night at Louisville (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) now knowing it is a legitimate contender. If anything, the Cardinals (2-1) are the ones who must prove themselves.
The Huskies are not flashy, but they do what they do extremely well. Donald Brown leads the nation in rushing and is bringing some rare national name recognition to Storrs for an athlete in something other than basketball. The underrated strength of the team, however, remains its defense.
Opponents have scored just 12.5 points a game against UConn, making it the stingiest unit in the Big East. There are few household names on the defense, but it is extremely well-coached and fundamentally sound.
"They don't make lot of mistakes," Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell said. "They basically say we don't think you can sustain a 12- or 13-play drive. They wait for you to make a mistake, and when you do, they're going to capitalize on it."
The defensive front is one of the best in the league, anchored by senior ends Cody Brown and Julius Williams. A trio of talented sophomores start at linebacker. And the secondary, led by cornerback and occasional wide receiver Darius Butler, doesn't let much get behind it.
"We just try to limit the big plays," Butler said. "We have some great athletes on the defensive side of ball and we can swarm."
Connecticut coach Randy Edsall continually stresses the team concept, which is why you won't see names on the back of his players' jerseys. He harps on mistake-free football, which is why UConn has been among the least-penalized teams in the country the last two years.
"On defense, our philosophy is, the first person to the ball takes a shot," Lutrus said. "If you miss, you don't have anything to worry about, because you know you have 10 other guys, your brothers, following up behind you.
"That's what makes us good. If we miss a tackle, there's not a lot of yards after that because we do a great job of covering them up."
The defense's adherence to fundamentals and assignments might have actually hurt the Huskies' cause last week against Baylor. True freshman quarterback and world-class sprinter Robert Griffin was able to run around and make plays on the fly for the Bears, who scored more points than UConn's first three opponents combined. But the Huskies stopped Griffin on Baylor's final drive and held on for the 31-28 win.
"We had to make a play on the last play of the game as a defense, and we did it," Butler said. "I think that builds a lot of character."
They won't have to worry about a running quarterback Friday night, as Cantwell is strictly a pocket passer. But Louisville's offense sprung to life in its last two games, rolling up 577 total yards in a 38-29 win over Kansas State last week. The Cardinals have dangerous speed in players like running back Victor Anderson and receiver Doug Beaumont, and the Huskies have had trouble containing faster teams in the past.
This will be the best offense UConn has faced so far this season. They're ready for it.
"This is a chance to prove ourselves to the country," Lutrus said, "and let them see what we have to offer."