UConn faces daunting challenge in football opener vs. No. 21 UCF

UConn quarterback David Pindell (5) runs past Central Florida linebacker Pat Jasinski during last year's game in Orlando, Fla. Pindell is back to lead the Huskies, who open their 2018 season on Thursday night at home against the No. 21 Knights at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
UConn quarterback David Pindell (5) runs past Central Florida linebacker Pat Jasinski during last year's game in Orlando, Fla. Pindell is back to lead the Huskies, who open their 2018 season on Thursday night at home against the No. 21 Knights at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Forget about UConn easing its way into the season.

The Huskies are diving right into shark-invested waters by hosting No. 21 Central Florida, the American Athletic Conference preseason favorite, in their season opener Thursday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford (7 p.m., ESPNU).

And that's completely fine with them.

"Wouldn't want to play anybody else, really," senior Tyraiq Beals said. "The guys are definitely all riled up and ready to play. It makes you feel good because you're starting off with a big game. A real big game."

Knowing the daunting challenge on the horizon, there's been an added sense of urgency and focus during preseason workouts. The Huskies are excited and anxious about the opportunity despite their heavy underdog status.

"You just know there's people coming to your house to try to embarrass you, especially being a top 25 team," sophomore Omar Fortt said. "We just have to make our mark and just show we're not a pushover team."

UCF represents a major upgrade from Holy Cross, Maine and Villanova, UConn's last three season-opening foes.

The Knights return 14 starters and carry the nation's longest winning streak (13 straight) into the game. Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, a Heisman Trophy candidate and defending AAC player of the year, powers an offense that led the nation in scoring last season at 48.2 points per game. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 613 yards — all school records — last season.

In last year's meeting, UCF rolled to a 49-24 victory in Orlando.

"We're going to have our hands full," coach Randy Edsall said.

Right now, UConn resides in an entirely different neighborhood than UCF.

The Huskies have suffered through seven straight losing seasons. They're in year two of the rebuilding process under Edsall. The roster is gradually undergoing an upgrade but still loaded with young and unproven players. Only 10 starters return, including just two on a defense that allowed 37.9 points per game last season.

On the plus side, senior quarterback David Pindell, who's poised for a breakout season, has an experienced offensive line and last year's top five receivers back at his disposal.

The early-season schedule doesn't do the Huskies any favors, as they No. 22 Boise State next week after hosting UCF.

"I don't know if there is anybody else playing two top 25 teams to start the season, that's for sure," Edsall said. "There's been good focus and a sense of urgency. They understand what we have in front of us and they're ready to meet the challenge.

"Now what we've got to do is to get everything in order to go out there and play to the best of our ability on Thursday night and see what happens and go from there."

Edsall has witnessed growth in his program since the end of last season. The Huskies are learning to consistently do the little things better. They're also starting to hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions.

Those are all important developments in Edsall's minds.

"Any team or any organization that I've been around, the successful ones, that's what has happened," he said. "When you get that, then you have a chance. That's the one thing that we've done and improved upon immensely. That's something we've still got to continue to work on."

With that said, it will be difficult for them to improve much on last season's 3-9 overall mark. They do hope to be more competitive after losing six times by 20 points or more.

Edsall will judge his team's success based on more than just victories.

"Yeah, we want to win every game," Edsall said. "But what I want to do is get better each and every game. If we do that and we do things the right way, our success will be defined and we'll be what we want to be. ... But to put a number on things, I don't think that's the right thing to do. If we do the things necessary and keep improving and getting better, at the end of the year we'll have the success that we want to have."

g.keefe@theday.com

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