Huskies making another late-year surge

Apparently, Connecticut just likes to play with its back against the wall.

How else to explain the past two seasons for the Huskies? Last year, they were reeling from the murder of teammate Jasper Howard and the three painstakingly close losses that followed. Facing postseason elimination, they ripped off four straight wins.

This year, UConn started 0-2 in the Big East and just 3-4 overall. Since then, they have won three straight games, beating arguably the best three other teams in the conference: West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

The Huskies are playing now like many thought they would at the beginning of the season. But this program did not look ready to handle expectations.

"At the beginning of the season, everybody was giving us respect and patting us on the back, saying 'These guys are going to win it this year,'" offensive lineman Zach Hurd said. "But we're a team that faces adversity, and we win.

"After we started off 0-2 in the conference, we said we can lose respect and just lay down and die for the rest of the season. But my teammates and I are not like that, and neither are our coaches."

Coach Randy Edsall had a potential mess on his hands just a month ago. Coming off a bye week, he dismissed starting quarterback Cody Endres three days before a game at Louisville. The entire team looked disjointed and uninterested in a 26-0 shellacking at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and UConn's preseason hopes of winning the Big East appeared dead in the water.

Edsall demanded more leadership from his players after that Louisville loss and told them it was time to get back to the hard-nosed Connecticut style.

"We needed to be more physically tough and mentally tough," Edsall said. "I told them to let it fly and have fun. We wanted to play a little more nasty, and we had to practice a lot better.

"Our leadership stepped it up a notch, and guys started to do the things we wanted them to do from the beginning of the season."

Six days after the humbling at Louisville, the Huskies scored their first-ever win over West Virginia in overtime. They followed that by handing Pittsburgh its only conference loss so far as they battled back from a third-quarter deficit. Last week's 23-6 win at Syracuse has put them in position to possibly capture their first-ever BCS bid. If Pittsburgh loses to either West Virginia or Cincinnati and the Huskies beat Cincinnati and South Florida, they will be Big East champions.

They wouldn't be here now, Hurd says, if it weren't for the increased focus at practice. UConn has been going in full pads and doing lots of full contact work even this late in the season. That has carried over into games, where the Huskies are pounding on teams in the trenches.

"We're really hitting each other," Hurd said. "The scout team started going harder, and that made us go harder. It's all about going out there and having the passion to play and the desire. We got away from having fun out there."

It's a lesson that took a while to sink in, but Connecticut likes playing with its back against the wall.

"Our goal right now is to earn national respect," Hurd said. "To show everybody that we started off bad but we're going to finish off strong."