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If UConn fans can remain patient, they will be rewarded

East Hartford — There are worse opponents with whom the UConn Huskies could have opened their 2018 football season. Alabama, perhaps. The Patriots? Maybe the '72 Dolphins.

It was hardly fair Thursday night at Rentschler Field, the Huskies saddled with No. 21 Central Florida, the defending conference champion that finished last season undefeated. Central Florida, with an offense whose pace is faster than somebody double parked. Central Florida, with McKenzie Milton, the quarterback ranked No. 7 in ESPN's preseason Heisman watch.

UConn's defense, seemingly with more holes than the TPC at River Highlands, all those freshmen and sophomores benumbed by UCF's talent and pace, got swallowed early and often. None of it surprising. Or disappointing, really. Just the reality of the moment.

And so while the schedule offers more amusement next week — on the road at No. 22 Boise State, picked to win the Mountain West — the news isn't all terrible. UConn will have played the two best teams it will see all season before Sept. 10. Opportunities to observe more than critique.

Put it this way: Opening the season with two bowsers, while perhaps resulting in victories, might not reveal UConn's warts — and strengths — as quickly.

(How's this for optimism so far?)

"They've got to learn somehow," UConn coach Randy Edsall said of all the kiddies he started, particularly on defense. "That's a top 20 team they went against. They'll bounce back. Now they understand how hard it is. Some of them got excited, 'I'm playing college football. I'm a starter.' Now they go out playing against a top 20 team (and realize), 'I've got to step it up a little more.' Be more fundamentally sound. Those are the lessons they'll learn.

"If we're going to end up getting to the top of our division, you've got to be able to beat those teams. They're here and we're here right now," Edsall said, holding one hand above the other. "That'll change."

Change, while inevitable, isn't always timely. Again, though: If they learn the right things, the UCF experience is wisdom for the pain. If they don't, they'll be playing before even more empty seats than the roughly 17,000 or so Thursday night.

"We had some young men play a little bit tentative for their first time and just didn't let it go," Edsall said. "Those are things we'll learn from. We'll get better. That's a team that's very deserving of their ranking. You can see why they were 13-0 last year. Their quarterback is outstanding.

"I believe we'll end up being a good team, but we've got to focus and concentrate on doing those little things correctly all the time. One of the things, with these young kids, they've never seen speed like that. We can't duplicate that in practice. The only way get used to it is by getting experience."

The defense, which yielded a crisp 652 yards, appears behind the offense, which gained 486. Quarterback David Pindell ran 22 times for 161 yards and threw for 286 to four different receivers. This is drastic improvement from the days of Captain Queeg Diaco, when the offense was, to use the captain's words, a "fish cake."

True enough, your quarterback carrying the ball 22 times is a recipe for the disabled list. But if Pindell is the best player ...

"Some people might try to take him away," Edsall said. "Maybe you don't like to run David 22 times, but if that's what the defense gives you, that's what you gotta take."

So now they're off to Idaho, where similar speed awaits. Improvement may not necessarily be seen on the scoreboard. There's little sense in being overly critical at this point of the season with freshmen and sophomores lining up against better players.

This is UConn football right now. You like the quarterback, acknowledge the offense is drastically improved from a few years ago and call the defense the dreaded "work in progress." There aren't many butts in the seats. News about this team really doesn't move the needle much.

But doing what Edsall did Thursday night — throw the young kids to the lions — is the only way this gets better. It'll get better incrementally. If you're up for being patient, Edsall knows what he's doing. They'll win again eventually. If not, you'll stay away, just as 17,000 did for the opener against the No. 21 team in the country.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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