UConn determined to cap bowl experience with a victory
UConn embraced the work-hard, play-hard mentality in the days leading up to today's St. Petersburg Bowl.
Since arriving in Florida earlier this week, the Huskies mixed practice and preparation with pleasure. They've dipped their toes in the warm water at Clearwater Beach, went to Busch Gardens, a theme park in Tampa, and strengthened their brotherhood bond by spending time together. They also given back to the community, visiting patients at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Coach Bob Diaco wants UConn's first bowl trip since 2010 to be a memorable one in every possible way.
"It should be fun," Diaco said told reporters in Florida. "It should be light and should be an awesome time. They should want to end this week and want to do it again and want to continue to do it."
The Huskies (6-6) don't want their experience to end on a sour note. A win today over Marshall University (9-3) would halt a streak of four straight losing seasons. Kickoff is 11 a.m. (ESPN) at Tropicana Field.
"We want to get this last win and end the season with a winning record," senior linebacker Graham Stewart said before leaving for Florida. "That's the most important thing. ... You go to a bowl game to beat the other team. You're not just going down there to frolick in the sunshine."
Playing in a bowl game represents a giant step forward for a program that has gone 10-33 in the previous four seasons. The Huskies have greatly improved in Diaco's second year. They became bowl eligible by beating No. 13 Houston, the eventual American Athletic Conference champion, 20-17 on Nov. 21.
It was one of the most significant wins in program history.
Now they have an opportunity to win the program's first bowl game since beating South Carolina 20-7 to capture the 2009 Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
"We could sit back if we get beat and say the best thing that happened this season was beating Houston," senior Max DeLorenzo said. "But now we want to beat Marshall. We're going to beat Marshall. The ultimate goal is to win, so that's what we're going to do."
Far easier said than done.
With a rich and successful bowl history, Marshall has a clear edge in postseason experience. The Thundering Herd is 9-3 in 12 previous appearances and shooting for a fifth straight bowl win. They won the Military and Boca Raton bowls in 2013 and 2014.
Stewart is the only active UConn player with bowl experience, playing for Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
Marshall also has a winning tradition, rolling up 32 wins in the last three seasons.
It is a program known for its toughness, according to Diaco.
"It's a great team," Diaco said. "They've been to 10 bowls in 15 years. They've got a storied program, an explosive group, high-octane offense and great players. So it will be a great challenge. What a fun challenge."
The game will pit two stingy defenses ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense. Marshall, a member of Conference USA, is 14th at 18.4 points per game while UConn is 17th at 19.8.
Linebacker Evan McKelvey, an All-Conference USA first team pick, is the player to watch on defense. He ranked second in Conference USA with 113 tackles, including nine for losses.
Quarterback Chase Litton, a freshman from Tampa, powers a pass-oriented Marshall attack that averages 32.6 points per game. He's thrown for 2,387 yards and 22 touchdowns. Senior Davonte Allen (56 catches, 696 yards, 5 TDs) is his top target while senior Devon Johnson (555 yards, 5 TDs) is the leading rusher.
The Huskies also must contain senior DeAndre Reaves, an explosive kick returner and member of the All-Conference USA special teams. He leads the league with a 30.5 yard return average and has scored two touchdowns.
On top of all that, UConn has beaten only one team, Houston, with a winning record this season.
"They're great team," quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. "I love playing against great teams. It's going to be an awesome opportunity."
UConn will receive a boost from the return of Shirreffs, who missed the regular season finale loss at Temple due to a head injury.
Shirreffs excelled at managing games this season and keeping mistakes to a minimum. He benefited from the break, returning feeling rejuvenated and eager to play. His brother, Evan, a reserve freshman quarterback for Miami, also has a game today, playing in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
"My body feels even better because I got some time away and let my body recover," Shirreffs said. "I was definitely missing playing on a day to day basis. ... It was tough. But I'm grateful to be able to play again."
No matter the outcome today, UConn will benefit from playing in a bowl. The extra practice days alone will aid in the program's development.
"It's huge for UConn," said linebacker Luke Carrezola said of the bowl experience. "The university and the whole student body has been waiting for it. It's so much more of a fun season than the past years. It's a huge step in the right direction. We still have more to cover. We're trying to win championships here. That's our going to be our main objective next year."
Location: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida
Kickoff: 11 a.m. (ESPN, WTIC 1080-AM)
Records: UConn 6-6, Marshall 9-3.
What's at stake: Marshall fell short of a goal of repeating as Conference USA champions, but have an opportunity to finish with at least 10 wins for the third straight season under coach Doc Holliday. A victory would give UConn, 2-10 a year ago in its first season under coach Bob Diaco, its first winning season since 2010.
Key matchup: Marshall freshman QB Chase Litton, who's thrown for 2,387 yards and 22 touchdowns, against a physical UConn defense that statistically is one of the toughest the Thundering Herd have faced. The Huskies rank 17th nationally in scoring defense (19.8) and 33rd in yards allowed (352.2). In addition, CB Jamal Summers led the American Athletic Conference with seven interceptions, and UConn's 17 picks overall is tied for 10th nationally.
Players to watch
Marshall: LB Evan McKelvey is Conference USA Defensive Player of the year; KR Deandre Reaves was the league's special teams player of the year; RB Devon Johnson has rushed for 555 yards and five TDs, and WR Davonte Allen has 56 receptions for 696 yards and five TDs.
UConn: QB Bryant Shirreffs has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 1,992 yards, nine TDs and seven interceptions; RB Arkeel Newsome has rushed for 760 yards and six TDs, plus 40 receptions for 432 yards and three TDs, and WR Noel Thomas has 54 catches for 719 yards and three TDs.
Facts & figures: Marshall is 3-0 in bowl games under Holliday, beating Florida International in the 2011 St. Petersburg Bowl, Maryland in the 2013 Military Bowl and Northern Illinois to wrap up a 13-1 season in last year's Boca Raton Bowl. ... UConn is making its sixth bowl appearance, first since playing in the Fiesta Bowl as 2010 Big East champions. ... The Huskies is the only team that's beaten No. 14 Houston this season, limiting the Cougars to 318 yards — nearly 200 yards below Houston's season average. ... Tropicana Field is the home of major league baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. ... UConn's men's basketball program is familiar with the domed stadium. The Huskies won the 1999 national championship in the building.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.