Scott Lutrus has been a stalwart for Connecticut since arriving in Storrs. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter who has provided great leadership from his linebacker position. So who better to reflect on where the Huskies have been and where they're going than Lutrus? I caught up with the UConn captain as the team began its preparations for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
It must be pretty easy getting fired up for practice now, knowing what lies ahead.
Scott Lutrus: Yeah, being in this position, with the bowl game and what's at stake going out there, practice has been tremendous. They're some of the best we've had all year from an intensity standpoint and the excitement by everyone on the team. It's going really well.
Has it sunk in yet that you're going to the Fiesta Bowl?
SL: I don't know if it's hit everyone yet. Maybe not until we get out there. The week of the game, maybe reality hits us that it's the biggest game of our lives. It's definitely a huge one, and I think we'll be ready.
Have you had any time to reflect on what you accomplished this season?
SL: We had some time off around finals just to sit back, away from practice, and look at things. From where we came from early in the year, from 0-2 in the conference to win the Big East and now go to the Fiesta Bowl. That's really what hit home, what we've accomplished and the team we became the second half of the year. You know, we struggled in starting off 0-2, but then we saw a huge turnaround in practice just from a team standpoint. This is the closest the team has been all year, and I think it really showed in the five-game winning streak and going to a BCS game.
Can that momentum carry over into the postseason despite the long break between games?
SL: I hope so. I believe so. Winning those games definitely helped, especially with the last game to get to where we are. I definitely think that's a reason why we're practicing so well. We know what we accomplished to get to this game but we also know what we can accomplish with this win. To finish with a six-game winning streak and go out as Fiesta Bowl champions would be huge for this team and this program.
You've had some experience in the past with long layoffs before bowl games. How much does that help your preparation this time around?
SL: It's difficult to go a month without playing a game, but we had that experience the last three years with our bowl games being pretty late, so that definitely helps. I think it's to our advantage to have that extra time to prepare, especially with our coaching staff that is so experienced and does so well watching film.
Randy Edsall said this program is past the "up-and-coming" stage. Do you think that UConn is now an established program?
SL: Absolutely, I agree with that. It's been seven, eight, nine years or however many years it's been since we became an [FBS] program, and going to five bowl games, winning a share of the Big East title and now going to a BCS game -- it's incredible what we've accomplished. It says a lot about our coaching staff and the players we bring in. We don't get the big-time recruits like other schools in the Big East or around the country, but look at how well we finish and how well we do every year.
At the same time, you must know that hardly anybody expects you to win this game.
SL: I don't think anyone is expecting us to win this game. But we're used to that. We're used to being the underdogs. At Big East media day every year, look at where they rank us compared to where we finish. It's nothing to us but a little chip on our shoulders. A little disrespect. We're used to being the underdogs, and we'll prepare like we do any other week and try to go win this game.
What are your initial thoughts about the Oklahoma offense you'll face?
SL: They're a great football team with a balanced offense. They've got some playmakers, a great quarterback, they're fourth in the nation in passing offense. We know it will be a great challenge for us. But we've played explosive offenses like this before, and we're working hard and we will have a good scheme going in. We're going to do well.
They have that high-tempo spread. Does it remind you of Cincinnati, perhaps?
SL: I think that's a great comparison because Cincinnati has that spread, up-tempo. It's a very similar offense. We've got to make sure we're in shape for this game, but we're preparing for that.
Does it give you confidence that Cincinnati almost beat Oklahoma this year and you beat Cincinnati by double digits?
SL: It does and it doesn't. That game was early in the year and anything can happen. For example, we were the only Big East team that Rutgers beat and we go on to win the Big East. So games early in the season really don't even matter to us too much. You can't look at it like, 'Cincinnati's a Big East team and they almost beat them so we can.' But there's no point going into this game thinking we can't win. We think we can win and that's the attitude we have to have.
The defense really picked things up the last half of the season. What was the key to that?
SL: I think the way we practiced and prepared each week. After the Louisville game [a 26-0 loss], we turned it around as a team in our preparation. And especially the defense. We really came together and understood what we needed to do to win each week. That showed through the last half of the season.
As a senior and four-year starter, how excited are you to end your career in this way?
SL: There's no better way to go out than this. Signing up here five years ago, I didn't think we'd be in this position, to go to five bowl games and now going to the biggest game we could go to. There's no better way to go out, and these seniors are proud of everything we accomplished. But we've got one more to play, and we're going to go out and look for that win.