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January 2, 2010

Edsall leads UConn to bowl after tragic loss

MORE: PapaJohns.com Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall's phone rang late -- about 1 a.m., to be exact -- and good news almost never arrives after midnight.

The voice on the other end told Edsall that one of his players, star cornerback Jasper Howard, had died. Howard had been stabbed at a school-sponsored dance about nine hours after UConn had beaten Louisville on Oct. 18, and Edsall was summoned to identify the body at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford.

"It happened so quickly," Edsall said. "I just went on my instincts and gut to lead me to what I can do. I got text messages from [former colleague and New York Giants coach] Tom Coughlin. And we talked. But I just kind of did what I thought was the best way to handle it."

Howard's death made football seem insignificant. But the season pressed on.

"You don't have time to get on the phone and ask people what to do," Edsall said. "You just have to react. That's really what I did. There is no manual, there is no book.

"For me, it comes down to three things. It comes down to your faith, family and friends. That is where you have to draw from and that's what I tried to do."

At the time of Howard's death, UConn was 4-2. How would the team react? Could it rebound from the tragedy?

A tough 28-24 loss at West Virginia followed. Next, UConn lost at home to Rutgers by the same score on a last-minute touchdown. The on-field misery continued with a 47-45 defeat at Cincinnati.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen and how they would respond," Edsall said. "But when they came back and played well against West Virginia, Rutgers and Cincinnati and fell short -- we lost close games in the final minutes -- I wasn't sure what was going to happen in the last three games of the season."

The Huskies' season of promise had turned ugly, and they needed to win at least two of their last three games to reach a bowl for the third season in a row.

UConn had an off-week following the loss to Cincinnati, which helped.

"We had a week off and we let them get away from football and let them deal with their own emotions," Edsall said. "After that, I saw a renewed energy and enthusiasm. They had a chance to reflect about what had gone on and taken place. They came back and played well in those last three games against Notre Dame, having a chance to win it in overtime and missing the field goal but then winning it in double-overtime."

That 33-30 double-overtime victory at Notre Dame was the salve the program needed. It was a landmark victory, arguably the biggest in school history. Remember: UConn only has been playing FBS football since 2000.

"That was a big win for us," Edsall said. "For our kids and program to go out there and get that win with all of that history and tradition they have had and all the four- and five-star recruits they have, there is no doubt it's the biggest win we have had as a school because of all of those things. And the timing of it for us, with what we had to go through, it didn't get any bigger than that."

The Huskies weren't done, following the historic win at South Bend with victories over Syracuse and USF to finish 7-5. Now, UConn will play South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl on Jan. 2.

"We know it's a tremendous challenge going against an SEC team," said Edsall, who is 65-65 in 11 seasons at UConn, with a shared Big East title in 2007. "It is a good measuring stick for us. I'm thrilled for our players because they played themselves into that the last three games. They went out and earned it. It wasn't given to them."

A victory over South Carolina would be the Huskies' first over an SEC school and would be another milestone for a UConn program that has had to overcome so much this season. And it could happen because of an improved offense.

The Huskies wanted to improve their passing game, so Edsall hired Joe Moorhead from Akron as offensive coordinator during the offseason. The results are tangible.

In 2008, UConn's offense ranked sixth overall in the Big East (356.1 ypg), while the passing game was No. 7 (139.7 ypg). This season, the Huskies' offense ranks No. 3 in the Big East (398.4 ypg) and the passing attack is No. 2 (225.7 ypg).

"We went with a new system in the passing game, while the running game was the same," said Edsall, whose five losses this season are by a total of 15 points. "I thought our receivers really stepped up big time. I thought we got good quarterback play. Zach [Frazer] got hurt early and Cody [Endres] came on and did a good job and he got hurt, and then Zach came back in and did a good job. The offensive line, I thought they developed.

"A lot the guys stepped up and grew up. Everyone kind of took it upon themselves. And this is the neat thing -- everyone was there to help each other. To comfort each other and to respect each other's way of grieving and handling of this tragic situation."

MORE: PapaJohns.com Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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