For UConn, It Simply Does Not Get Any Bigger

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Fans are getting ready to squeeze into Rentschler Field for a showdown of two programs at opposite ends of the college football spectrum: UConn and Michigan.

Biggest home game in UConn football history. If those seven words mean nothing to Michigan and their fans today, maybe they will mean plenty to them by Sunday morning. If those seven words don't mean much more to UConn fans, well, let that stand as testament to how far the dream has fallen in only a few years.

If winless UConn, an 18 1/2-point underdog, does Akron one play better and beats the No. 15 Wolverines Saturday night, the Huskies are national headlines. If they get stomped, if UConn fans show up late, leave early and all that the ABC announcers see at 11 o'clock is thousands of Michigan fans inside Rentschler Field and hundreds of red taillights leaving it, Connecticut football is a national punch line.

Either way, biggest home game in UConn football history.

Double-overtime at Notre Dame in 2009, South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl, Dave Teggart's 52-yard field goal at USF to put UConn in its one BCS Bowl … the program's greatest victories have been on the road.

The opening of Rentschler Field in 2003 was landmark and, yes, buried in the 45-20 home record are some nice building-block wins. UConn beat No. 11 South Florida in 2007, two weeks after the Bulls were ranked No. 2, but USF fell out of the Top 25 and the significance of that one has not stood the test of time. The tide-changing back-to-back victories over West Virginia (finally!) and Pittsburgh (Randy Edsall going for it on fourth down from his own 19) in 2010 at the Rent have stood up much better.

Still, this one is different. This is Michigan. Michigan football is big. Michigan football is so big it doesn't even want to play at the Rent. Michigan football, like great forces of nature, is so big it shows up in Connecticut once every 75 years.

The Great New England Hurricane, one of the most significant meteorological events of the 20th century, struck on Sept. 21, 1938. According to Mark J. Roy on the UConn website, returning students to Connecticut State College — as it was known — were set to register Sept. 22. Power and telephones were knocked out and hundreds of trees around Storrs were knocked down. Upward of 800 people were killed in the region. While there were no fatalities on campus, 300 chickens died. Classes, incredibly enough, did start on Sept. 23, and the Huskies were on the football field Oct. 1 for a 13-6 victory over Wesleyan.

It would be a month later when No. 12 Michigan and its marching band arrived by train in New Haven. Yale was the state's football team back then — the Big Boys — although back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Larry Kelley and Clint Frank had graduated. Still, according to the New Haven Register, a Yale assistant coach/law student forged a scouting report that nearly led to the upset. His name? Former Michigan All-American center and future President Gerald Ford.

Covering the game for The Courant was Grattan O'Connell, a football and basketball star at Boston College who went on to play for the NFL Hartford Blues and Providence Steam Roller before joining the paper. Grattan did not shy away from the 90-word, one-sentence lead:

"The Michigan Wolverines, packing in their red hearts all the dogged fight of the savage beast for which they are named, came back in a 'gutsy' tearing fight to rake Yale's Bulldogs and win 15-13 here today before 45,000 who sat under a warm sun and were thrilled by the minute — yes, by the thrill-packed second — as the Blue team smashed into a 13-2 lead in the first half and then saw victory fairly wing out of this vast bowl as the fighting, favored invaders from far away Ann Arbor blazed out their triumph."

One of the cool things about Michigan's return to Connecticut is that Tom Harmon wore No. 98 in the 1938 game. Quarterback Devin Gardner has been wearing No. 98 in tribute to Harmon this season. "Overshadowed only by Harmon's brilliance in the last quarter," O'Connell wrote, "was a dazzling exhibition at halftime by the perfectly drilled Michigan band." Tradition runs deep at Michigan, and 1938 was the first season of the iconic winged helmet, brought over from Princeton by coach Fritz Crisler.

As UConn safety Ty-Meer Brown also noted this week, the Wolverines have wings on their helmets, but they don't wear an "S" on their chests. They are not Alabama, not this year. Yes, the Wolverines will be fired up to make up for a lousy showing against Akron, but they are far from a great team. The Huskies certainly have played better ones through the years. Louisville's coming to the Rent Nov. 8, and the Cardinals are ranked seventh.

But here's the hard truth. Everybody in Connecticut looked forward to this game, and when it was scheduled in 2009 anything seemed possible for UConn football. If the Huskies fold their hand on this night, if the Huskies fans fold their hands right along with them, they'll be 0-3 going on Oh-blivion. The UConn basketball team opens Nov. 8, too, against Maryland, and if Paul Pasqualoni doesn't turn this around NOW, UConn fans will have turned their interest to Shabazz Napier by the time the Louisville game rolls around.

Losing a tight, exciting game would be one thing. Getting pasted is another. Although lots of fans might relish the thought of Pasqualoni's dismissal, a horrible loss could empty out the Rent for the rest of the season and take a long, long time to get the magic back.

When the Huskies played in the 2010 opener at the newly refurbished Michigan Stadium, they did it in front of officially the largest crowd to watch a college football game. Michigan has since eclipsed the 113,090 who watched Denard Robinson lead the Wolverines over UConn, 30-10. Still, you get the picture of how big the Big House is.

There is a flip side to this. Maybe you already saw what Robert Griffin III told ESPN in March 2012. On a day like this, it bears repeating.

"The thing that people think is when you go to these big stadiums and they have 80,000 people or 100,000 people, that these are the toughest stadiums to play at, but really, those aren't," Griffin said. "When you have that many people, most of the time, the fans are pretty far away from the field. The toughest places to play are the ones that are jam-packed, are really tight to the field, and sit about 45,000 people. When we played at UConn my freshman year, that was the loudest place I've ever been as a football player. The stands are right next to the field, it was packed and everyone was yelling."

The Little House can be pretty daunting, too.

Michigan athletic director David Brandon badly wanted to move this game, negotiated by his predecessor, to MetLife Stadium. He said he gave UConn compelling financial incentives. Brandon is a Michigan Man. He was a reserve under Bo Schembechler. He was on the Michigan Board of Regents. He was CEO of Michigan's gift to the fast-food world, Domino's. When it came to this game, he was advocating for the vast legion of Michigan fans.

And that's fine. UConn should look to New York and Boston for the occasional big-time nonconference matchups in the future. Necessary for the brand. Good for the coffers. Yet after what Notre Dame did — insisting on a doomed 10-game deal with zero games at the Rent — Michigan and everybody else has to understand that UConn must build its own tradition at home.

It was a young tradition that held so much promise only a few years ago. And it's a tradition sorely in need of a special night. Some would argue that the winless UConn football team has nothing to lose against Michigan. On the national stage, already in a conference where keeping a high profile will be difficult, I'd argue that the program and UConn athletics have plenty to lose.

Biggest home game in UConn football history.

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