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And in that corner... the UConn Huskies

It’s tough not to cheer for UConn. After what the school has gone through in the month since Jasper Howard was murdered, the football team has seen games slip from their grasp in every conceivable way possible.

While I’ve tried to watch as much of the Huskies as possible to get ready for this Saturday’s tilt, nobody has seen more UConn football than Russell Blair, a football writer for the school’s Daily Campus. He’s chronicled the football season first-hand and covered the Jasper Howard tragedy as well. I had a chance to exchange emails with Russell the past few days and asked him a few questions that will give us a better clue of what to expect this weekend when the Huskies play their first ever football game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Hope you enjoy...

Inside the Irish: Talking strictly football, how heartbreaking has this season been? Losing by 2, 2, 3, 4 and 4 points? You’re sitting at 4-5 and you could just as easily be in the discussion for the Big East title. What is morale like?

Russell Blair: I don’t think that the fans have given up on the team yet but a loss on Saturday could cause many fans to lose faith in the season. A lot of the local writers picked us to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and that 7-5 mark is a possibility but we need to get wins over the Irish and USF, two tough games, to make that happen. Furthermore, if we fall to 6-6 and Notre Dame takes the Big East berth in the Gator Bowl we may be fighting for an at-large bid that might not come. The hardest thing to deal with is that it sometimes seems we find ways to lose games that we should be winning. The safety in the end zone against UNC, the 81-yard touchdown with under 40 seconds to go against Rutgers, these are the kind of inexcusable plays that have cost us games we had a good chance of winning. Most people expected UConn to make a bowl this year and if we don’t make a bowl I think that would be one of the toughest things for fans and those in the program itself to swallow.

ITI: Let’s talk about the tragedy of Jasper Howard. What has it been like to be a student at UConn through all of this? We’ve seen how the football team has tried to battle through this, but how has the student body reacted?

RB: As terrible a tragedy as the murder of Jasper Howard was I think if anything, it has brought the student body that much closer together. From the candlelight vigils to the way that the students acted at the first home game following his death against Rutgers I think the students have bonded together over this common tragedy and have done a great job reminding the national media that Jasper wasn’t just a football player but a fellow student as well. It’s been a month since the incident and I think most students are well on their way moving on with their lives but it’s something that nobody here at UConn is ever going to forget as long as they live.

ITI: Talk a little bit about the quarterback situation. Zach Frazer was the first quarterback recruit of Charlie Weis. He was a promising get by head coach Randy Edsall, but hasn’t really lit it up since he got his chance. What’s the future of the QB position for UConn?

RB: I think Frazer has shown flashes of excellence but he hasn’t really panned out in the end. He’s got a cannon for an arm but he often doesn’t make the best choices as shown by his 7 interceptions to just 4 passing touchdowns. The QB situation for UConn has been shaky all season long, Frazer was the starter coming into the season before his injury and Cody Endres did a fairly good job replacing him and actually earned the starting job for himself. Even when Frazer was deemed 100 percent healthy, Endres remained the starter. Now the shoe is on the other foot and Endres is out for the year so Frazer got his job back but maybe not the way he wanted. I think if Zach has a good performance over these last three games and leads UConn to a bowl victory it will be hard to take away the job from him next season. However, if his performance continues to be mediocre look for a three-way competition in the spring between Frazer, Endres and redshirt freshman Mike Box.

ITI: It looks like the running attack has gotten going and the Notre Dame defense has done it’s best to make everyone look good. Who can we expect to torment the Irish will big plays, either on the ground or in the air?

RB: The Notre Dame rush defense is giving up over 150 yards per game and UConn has a strong tandem of backs in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman. Todman actually earned back the top spot on the depth chart this week, partially due to Dixon getting banged up but Todman has also shown promise and a newfound ability to run hard between the tackles and not just around the outside. Look for Todman to try to exploit the Notre Dame front seven and with UConn’s sturdy offensive line I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break off another 100-yard rushing game with maybe a 20-plus yard run somewhere in there. As for the passing game, the Huskies’ 10 touchdowns this season is already double their total from last year but give credit to Marcus Easley for that. Easley has 5 TDs and has shown the ability to make big plays so he will probably be the guy the Irish have to look for in the passing game. He has a touchdown in each of his last five games and has racked up 80 yards at least in those five contests and I expect him to find gaps in the Notre Dame secondary.

ITI: Notre Dame’s season has swooned, and Charlie Weis is now squarely on the hot seat. Does that take away from the historic nature of this game? We’ve heard that it’s just another football game, but does coming to Notre Dame for the first time mean something?

RB: While Notre Dame is nowhere near the powerhouse they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this game still does have some sense of historical implication given that it may be the only time the Huskies ever travel to South Bend. Though a series was in the works, albeit not a true home and home as UConn’s “home” games were at Giants Stadium and Gillete, those plans have been scrapped and it looks like it’ll be just a one time deal. But this won’t be the only big time game for UConn, signing home and home series with Tennessee and Michigan has given the Huskies a handful of big time games and while Notre Dame has a large national following this game will likely not be what it might have appeared to be when it was initially planned several years ago. As for Charlie Weis, the fact that he is fighting for his job and UConn is fighting for their first win since the loss of Howard only adds to the emotion of the day. I expect both teams to leave it all out on the field and it should be a pretty entertaining football game.

ITI: The Huskies staged a furious rally and nearly caught Cincy. Any thoughts on the Bearcats and the apple of many Irish fan’s eye, Brian Kelly?

RB: UConn kept Cincinnati much closer than many people expected, especially at their own place in Nippert Stadium. I think that Cincinnati is the real deal and if they run the table they should have a shot at the BCS National Championship. Say what you will about Big East football but I think that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even West Virginia to an extent, have proven that there are always going to be a few good sides that come out of what many consider to be the weakest of the BCS conferences. The fact that there were no Big East teams in the AP Top 25 to begin the season may have made some of the coaches and players play with a little chip on their shoulder but the conference has cemented itself as having teams as good, if not better, than those in the Big 10, Big 12 or SEC. I think Brian Kelly is a great coach and the excitement he brings to his team is unparalleled. Cincinnati is trying to keep him around and I know he’s not the first choice for the Irish but if Notre Dame comes calling I think he’ll have a hard time saying no. Losing Brian Kelly would be a big blow for the Big East. Take West Virginia for example, losing Rich Rodriguez has hurt them over the past few seasons.

ITI: Prognosis for Saturday’s game?

RB: This is a tough one, earlier this season when both teams had higher expectations for the season I would have said Notre Dame would win big. I still think Notre Dame is going to win, but I think it’ll be a closer game. Losing Jasper Howard is going to hurt us in the secondary, especially against the likes of Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a great kid but he’s a redshirt freshman and he’s got a lot of work to do to get his game to the level that Howard was playing at. Not to mention that Clausen has proven himself to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. UConn’s defense, which has been their anchor the last few seasons, gave up 47 points to Cincinnati and I think Notre Dame shouldn’t have trouble finding the endzone. I really hope the Huskies win, it would be a big time win for the program, but I just don’t see it happening.

My prediction: Notre Dame 35, UConn 24

Special thanks to Russell for the in-depth analysis, and sparing all of us from my attempt at learning the A to Zs of UConn in a week. For more of Russell’s writing, check out his column at the Daily Campus.