In October, while Connecticut was struggling to a 3-4 start and losing its first two Big East games, a young player stood up in the back of the room during a team meeting. He told the rest of the team, simply, "Jazz wouldn't have this."
That message came through loud and clear. The last thing any of the Huskies want to do is dishonor the memory of Jasper "Jazz" Howard.
"We all knew what kind of player Jazz was and how mad and frustrated he would have been with the way we were playing," said senior linebacker Scott Lutrus, who recounted the story of the young player's message. "It hit home for all of us how negative it was not having him here. I think that helped us turn things around."
Howard has been gone since Oct. 18, 2009, when he was stabbed to death on campus. Hours earlier, the defensive back played his final game for UConn in a win over Louisville. But Howard's spirit and memory remain a vital part of this team, a source of strength and inspiration. And he has been in the Huskies' hearts during this improbable run to the school's first BCS game.
"We think about him every day," receiver Kashif Moore said. "Not only do we play for ourselves and our families and the university and the state of Connecticut, but we play for him. We play the game how he would want us to and how he would play the game."
The bonds for Moore are tighter than for others. A close friend, he held Howard in his arms as his teammate lay bleeding to death. Since then, Moore has called Howard's mother every night before he plays a game.
Those who weren't as close to Howard receive daily reminders of his presence. A large photo of Howard in uniform greets visitors to the lobby of UConn's Burton Family Football Complex, along with a quote Howard gave to reporters hours before his death: "You have to play each play like it's the last play you'll ever play."
Last year's team received the Football Writers Association of America Courage Award for how it dealt with the tragedy. A string of agonizing losses followed Howard's death until an emotional, overtime triumph over Notre Dame after which coach Randy Edsall was moved to tears in his postgame interview.
UConn would go on to win its final four games, including a bowl spanking of South Carolina. It is on a similar late-season roll this year, having won five straight heading into Saturday's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl showdown with Oklahoma.
"The adversity this team has had to overcome the last two years is just remarkable," Edsall said.
Edsall's office is decorated with photos of Howard's daughter, who was born a few months after the stabbing. And after clinching the BCS bid Dec. 4 at South Florida on a last-second field goal, Edsall couldn't help but think of Howard again. He said then he hoped the Discover Orange Bowl would select the Huskies, because Howard is from north Miami and his family could attend the game.
As of Sunday night, it was unclear if any of Howard's relatives would make it to the Fiesta Bowl. But his mother, stepfather, two sisters, girlfriend and daughter received an ovation from the Rentschler Field crowd in Connecticut's home finale. Howard would have been a senior this season, and he was the last player announced on Senior Day. Edsall has named him an honorary captain for this year's team.
"Jazz is still with us and is a part of this senior class," Lutrus said. "He's here every day."
UConn is a heavy underdog to Oklahoma and will face some major challenges in the game. But the Huskies know what to do when things get tough: Play like it's the last play they'll ever play. That's the only way Howard would have had it.