UConn football faces stiff challenge in Illinois

The UConn football team regularly wears the underdog label.

That's expected when a program wins just seven games in the last three seasons, including one in 2018.

The Huskies will be heavy underdogs again on Saturday when hosting Big Ten foe Illinois in a non-conference game at Rentschler Field in East Hartford (3:30 p.m., CBSSN).

"Got a tough one this week," coach Randy Edsall said.

They took a baby step forward with a 24-21 win over Wagner, a Football Championship Subdivision team, in last week's season opener.

But they've stumbled badly against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, dropping 16 straight and last winning in October 2017 against Tulsa.

Edsall challenged his Huskies this week to rise to the occasion.

"I would think we would improve upon what we did (last week)," Edsall said. "We're stepping up quite a bit this week. How much do you have inside of you to come out and lay it on the line and get after it? Who's willing to step up now?

"Ain't nobody giving you a chance to win. Are you willing to pay the price and willing to give everything you've got to prove people wrong? Are you willing to do what's necessary to make yourself better and give your team an opportunity to win?

"That's what you find out in games like this."

It should be a revealing game, one the players are looking forward to.

"It's very exciting," said Ardell Brown, a graduate transfer expected to make his UConn debut after sitting out last week with an injury. "It's fun just to put ourselves out there. It's a showcase game for us. It's to show everything that we're about at UConn."

UConn gained some confidence against Wagner. The Huskies displayed a potent running game that piled up 234 yards and an improved defense that forced six three-and-outs after accomplishing that a total of 17 times last season.

Edsall downplayed his team's improvements, probably a good idea considering the enormous challenge against Illinois.

"Every week is a new week," he said. "What you did last week doesn't matter this week. So we've got to prove it all over. Last week was a one-game season. We did what we needed to do. We've got another one-game season Saturday. What are you going to do this week? What you did last week is over. Gone. Done. ... What are you going to do come 3:30 Saturday because that's what you're going to be judged on."

Illinois also won its season opener, routing Akron 42-3 relying on a balanced attack and a stout defense.

Like the Huskies in the American Athletic Conference, the Fighting Illini are one of the worst programs in their conference. Illinois has suffered through seven straight losing seasons and only won more than two conference games once (3-5 in 2014) during that span.

Coach Lovie Smith, whose NFL head coaching experience included stops in Chicago and Tampa Bay, went the transfer route to try to inject some more talent into his team. Five newcomers made an impact as starters against Akron, including quarterback Brandon Peters, who transferred from Michigan. Peters finished 14-for-23 for 163 yards and threw for three touchdowns while rushing for 36 yards and a touchdown. Mike Epstein, last week's leading rusher with 45 yards, is out with an injury.

Illinois will attempt to break a seven-game non-conference road losing streak.

"They played very, very well against Akron in all three phases," Edsall said. "They did a good job in free agency this off-season in terms of picking up guys from the (transfer) portal. So they used free agency to their advantage and all those guys played well for them the other day.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us. ... We have to make sure when game time comes we go out and execute at a very high level in order to give ourselves that opportunity to win."

It will be the first meeting between the two programs.

During his weekly press conference earlier this week, Smith talked about facing the Huskies and called Edsall an outstanding football coach.

"They had a tough one to open the season, it is what it is," Smith said on the team's website. "For us, it doesn't matter who our opponent is. We're going on the road. We haven't had a ton of success on the road."

g.keefe@theday.com

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