The Syracuse experience for people from Connecticut is a bit different, especially today, where UConn is not only the state's flagship school and a destination for so many in-state kids. Over one hundred of the students I graduated high school with go to UConn, whether it is Storrs or the local Stamford branch.
Beating UConn carries that much more weight for me, because I have so many friends and family members who root on the Huskies.
I'd never visited Rentschler Field. I spent much of my childhood rooting for UConn in basketball, so I've been to Gampel Pavillion and the XL Center (or the Hartford Civic Center for the old school), but UConn Football wasn't a thing when I was little. To be fair, they aren't much of a thing now either, but allegedly they went to a BCS bowl last year. I haven't met any fans who can actually back me up on this fable. Apparently no one went. Weird.
I can't imagine having to commute 30 minutes from campus to go to a football game as a student, but I must say, the Rent is very easy to get to. A quick shot up the Merritt to I-91, and my dad, my little brother and I were in East Hartford.
The Rent had a surprisingly strong tailgating scene. This probably the one thing I would give it on the Dome. There was a ton of room directly around the stadium, and secondary lots (like the Aircraft Club lot where the Syracusefan.com tailgate was held) was very accessible, cheap ($10 to park), and a quick 10-or-so hike from the stadium.
We arrived by 9 am, and met up with the normal Syracusefan crowd, as well as a number of TNIAAM faithful, including CuseCrew08 and Ryanwk (sorry that I didn't get to stay and chat by the way, when you found me, my dad and brother were itching to get to the stadium).
Syracuse was represented really well at the game. The main SU section in the corner opposite of where I sat was sold out, and there was a lot of Orange spread out around the rest of the stadium. We had at least a few thousand people in orange throughout Rentschler Field.
The Rent itself, however, is pretty bare-bones. Everything is very metal, very Spartan. I imagine the Dome had a similar feel before Gross dressed it up in Orange. It was also way expensive for UConn football. $8 for Coors Light, and $10 for a Newcastle or Sierra Nevada? The selection was nice, but way pricier than I expected. I didn't get any food, but I heard it was similarly overpriced.
The stadium inside was okay, and luckily the weather worked out for the most part. The atmosphere was fairly similar to what you get in the Dome- too much piped in music, not enough of the band (which was solid, and did our fight song as a part of its opening performance which was a nice touch). They also had this annoying "sideline reporter", some girl, probably a student, who came on at random intervals to interview people, often interrupting the referees trying to announce an important call. They also had probably the most annoying thing to ever grace a stadium that I've been to (sorry Heinz Field panther growl)...every defensive third down for UConn, some kid named "DJ Joey Franchize" (I'm just assuming he spells it with a 'z'), would come on and say some stuff to try and pump up the UConn fans while playing "Welcome to the Jungle". It was so unnecessary.
Actual game impressions (le sigh) after the jump...
No game has quite shown how truly Jekyll and Hyde our team is like this UConn game. After the first drive, our defense was really good, turning over UConn almost every time they touched the ball. However, our offense couldn't get out of its own way. In the second half our offense got into rhythm, but only had four possessions, in part because the defense couldn't stop basic run plays.
It was a bothersome loss, because I felt that we were pretty clearly a more talented team, but we just failed to put it all together, once again. With Louisville, it was disappointing coming off the game against West Virginia, but we got taken behind the woodshed. I can handle with being beaten soundly, but against UConn, much like the Rutgers debacle, we beat ourselves.
I hesitate to pin this loss on Nate Hackett, as so many love to do every game. Both coaching staffs took similar approaches in this game, especially from halftime on. Hackett worked to establish the running game early, and it just wasn't working. Unfortunately, Ryan Nassib had his worst half as a starter, so we were not able to take advantage to the five extra drives UConn handed us. Granted, we never had good field position, but either way, you need to be able to drive down the field more than once in a half when handed the ball five extra times by the defense. To Hackett's credit, instead of just pounding the ball up the gut and hoping for the best, he worked on getting Ryan into a rhythm in the second half, and it worked. Nassib was much better after halftime, and our offense looked really solid, and it was based off of the plays that we know work -- slants to Alec Lemon, roll-outs to Nick Provo. It's easy to blame Hackett for going back to the well too many times, but before the interception on the jumped Lemon route, it had worked. Using the plays that work is how we almost put up 50 on WVU.
It's not as if George Deleone did anything different. In fact, he was even less creative in his play calling in the second half than Hackett was. He saw what we all did, that Johnny McEntee is a terrible, terrible quarterback, and put Scott McCummings in, and found the two plays that worked against the Syracuse defense -- the "read option" (which wasn't very option-y since the only time McCummings tried to pass he got wrecked by Dan Vaughan on a delayed blitz and fumbled), and the toss right to freshman running back Lyle McCombs (who was very good). Even when it was 2nd and 20, UConn didn't waver on their gameplan. They ran McCombs again, and he picked up a huge gain. That play may have been the one that ultimately sealed the game for the Huskies.
So again, I don't blame Hackett for the game. I think first-half Ryan Nassib is a bigger culprit, but he also bounced back well in the second half. We lost the game in two areas:
Our linebackers were atrocious in the second half. McCombs picked up 63 yards on 10 carries in the second half. McCummings had 56 on 10, and almost all of his runs were directly into the heart of our defense. I don't know if I've ever seen a linebacker group bounce off of so many runners. UConn probably ran the most simple offense possible in BCS-level football, and I don't blame them. SU's defense did nothing to stop it. I don't think this is on Shafer either, the players were in position to make plays and just couldn't make the tackles.
The second area was special teams. The worst field position UConn got was when Krautman kicked off out of bounds. The fact that Ross had to kick-off is a real indictment of the other kickers on our team. Ross was injured all week, and probably shouldn't have been doing anything besides maybe short field goals. Fisher's punts were abysmal. Our coverage was laughable, and I'm shocked that UConn never ran one back. I like our coaching staff, despite the rough last few weeks, but we need to bring in a dedicated special teams guy in the worst way.
Lemon and Provo's performances were obviously the standouts for Syracuse, and I credit them for very nice games, especially Alec who dominates Rentschler Field (18 catches and 297 yards, as well as two touchdowns in his two games in East Hartford).
The team has a ton of work to do. Luckily, we're getting South Florida this week, who is probably the only Big East team playing worse than us at this point. As we know, anything can happen in the Big East, and we can't take any of these games for granted. I had no doubts that we would beat UConn, and we know how that turned out.
After the game, I made my way to Storrs to stay with a few friends on Saturday night before coming back to Syracuse on Sunday. I wore my Syracuse hoodie out, and expected to get a lot of crap for it, but the UConn students were actually pretty cool about the whole thing. Most of them would rib me a bit about the game, and their national championship, but the overwhelming sense that I got was of mutual respect, aside from the one drunk girl at the house party I went to who told me she hoped I would fell down a flight of stairs and die. Some people can't handle college.
Despite the loss, the trip made me realize that I am happy that I am not on the other side. UConn's campus is sprawling and disconnected. It feels like you're walking the distance from main campus to south campus here at SU, to get anywhere at UConn. The quickest route available is also known as "the rape trail", so Storrs has that going for it. Syracuse feels much more like a unified campus community. We might "suck at football", as many young Huskies reminded me, but I wouldn't trade the Syracuse experience for anything in the world.