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UB'S FINALE GIVES UCONN BOWL DREAMS

Last season when Connecticut was starting to gain recognition, Randy Edsall was asked about the possibility of a bowl bid. The Huskies coach reacted with one of those are-you-serious kinds of laughs. Maybe it was funny.

Two years before, UConn was blown out by the likes of the University at Buffalo, Eastern Washington, Middle Tennessee State and Temple, and there were questions about Edsall's job security after the Huskies limped in with a 2-9 record.

But the Huskies have won 18 of their last 24 games, and Edsall is handsomely paid with a contract that runs through 2009. And UConn is one win away from becoming bowl eligible.

"That's what we have to try and take care of," said Edsall, whose Huskies wouldn't mind solidifying their bowl hopes when they host UB (2-8) in the Bulls' final game of the season at noon Saturday in a sold-out Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.

The contest is part of a three-game weekend that also features the UB men's and women's teams taking on the defending national champion Huskies in basketball. While hoops will probably always be the center of attention in the Nutmeg State, UConn's football program is starting to draw awareness.

Last fall, UConn went 9-3 but couldn't land a bowl bid as an independent. Now the Huskies are in the Big East, which has four bowl tie-ins: BCS, Gator, Continental Tire and Insight. West Virginia (8-2), Boston College (7-2) and Pittsburgh (6-3) are already bowl eligible with Syracuse (5-5), UConn (5-4) and Rutgers (4-5) left with work to do. Independent Notre Dame (6-4) is also in line for the Gator Bowl. UConn, which has 22 seniors playing their final home game, plays at Rutgers in its regular-season finale next weekend.

"They understand what college football is all about, and they understand that if you have six wins you can make yourself bowl eligible," Edsall said. "We also have the opportunity to go .500 or better over the last three seasons so we have a lot to play for. . . . These kids have done a tremendous job, and I'll be forever indebted to them and grateful for what they brought here and believed in what we did."

Everything has happened so quickly for UConn, a program that moved up to Division I-A in 2000, one year after UB. The university and community clearly made a serious commitment to football.

It started with the opening of $91.2 million Rentschler Field last year and moving into the Big East a year early following the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Huskies have been competitive in the Big East (2-3), scoring their first win with an upset of Pittsburgh in September on national television.

They've dropped their last two games, however, both on the road. UConn lost to Syracuse, 42-30, and suffered a nonleague loss to Georgia Tech, 30-10.

"I knew what to expect because I played in the league before," said Edsall, a Syracuse graduate who later served as an Orange assistant. "You're playing against some quality teams and some good players and that's what happens when you go into a BCS conference. We had been competitive in games against the Big East until we had some things take a turn for the worse in terms of turnovers and some things that hurt us. We just have to continue getting bigger, faster and stronger and match up a little bit more consistently with some of those teams."

UConn sold approximately 28,000 season tickets, up from 24,000 in 2001 when they played in Memorial Stadium on the Storrs, Conn., campus. Including Saturday's game, the Huskies will have played to 96 percent capacity at Rentschler.

"They're booming," said UB senior center Eric Weber. "They're winning games, they're in the Big East. That's what we want to do."
e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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