MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – After 18 days off the West Virginia University football team returns to action Wednesday night at Milan Puskar Stadium against a 4-3 Connecticut team with its top two quarterback sidelined due to injury.
Husky starter Matt Boniswalski broke his collar bone in win against Syracuse on Oct. 7, and No. 2 quarterback D.J. Hernandez will be the backup Wednesday night after undergoing wrist surgery on Oct. 18. Hernandez, a redshirted freshman, has been medically cleared to practice and play but UConn coach Randy Edsall said earlier this week that true freshman Dennis Brown will take the first snap against the Mountaineers.
Brown, a Miami native, played well in Connecticut’s last game against Rutgers on Oct. 22, completing 18 of 35 passes for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Brown, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 185 pounds, is more of a pocket passer than Hernandez, who ranks second on the team with a 5.2-yards-per-carry rushing average.
“There is clearly a different game plan when they had a true freshman (Brown) in there against Rutgers,” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. “When Hernandez was in the game it seemed like their whole offensive package was out there.”
According to Rodriguez, Brown hasn’t run as much as Hernandez and that may have been out of necessity.
“They may have said, hey, you’re the third guy and we can’t afford to get you hurt and have to bring in the fourth guy,” Rodriguez said. “So I think they were limited with that. Now if both can play, I think they’ll open it up and do some more things with quarterback runs.”
Injuries have been a theme for Connecticut this year. The Huskies have had 16 players on its two-deep this year missed at least one game due to injury. Some of the walking wounded will play against West Virginia, including linebacker James Hargrove who is nursing a broken thumb.
Edsall, a defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and a defensive coach at Syracuse and Boston College before coming to Connecticut, has a defensive mentality and his unit is tops in the Big East in total defense permitting just 283.3 yards per game. The Huskies are also first in the conference in pass defense allowing only 149.1 yards per contest.
“They crowd the line of scrimmage and they force you to execute,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t make any secrets about it: they’re going to put a guy in every gap and they’re not going to give up anything cheap.
“And when they have success with that early, they don’t let up: they’ll keep them all up in there until you can get a big play or force them to do something differently,” Rodriguez explained.
UConn is the first NCAA school since Auburn in 1996 to open the year with back-to-back shutouts blanking both Buffalo and Liberty. The Huskies also lead the nation in third-down defense allowing just a 17-percent success rate (17 of 98).
Hargrave, a 5-foot-11-inch, 224-pound senior from Pleasantville, N.J., is the only returning starting linebacker for the Huskies from a season ago. He leads the team with nine tackles for losses while ranking second with three sacks. His 37 overall tackles rank fourth on the team.
Weakside linebacker Johnathon Smith leads the Huskies with 47 total stops. Sophomore Danny Lansanah is second with 41 tackles and 7.5 tackles for losses. Lansanah started the Rutgers game at middle linebacker but moved to Smith’s weakside linebacker spot this week and Smith will back him up. Sophomore Ryan Henegan is expected to get the start at middle linebacker against the Mountaineers.
The secondary is young with a pair of freshmen at corner (Darius Butler) and strong safety (Dahna Deleston) and a couple of sophomores at free safety (Marvin Taylor) and corner (Tyvon Branch).
“They put some pressure on their corners,” Rodriguez said. “Last year they played us a little differently than they did everybody else. They pressed at the line of scrimmage some but they didn’t put as many guys in the box in certain formations as they did other people. Now how they play us Wednesday night I’m not sure.”
UConn has a pair of 280-pounders up front in senior Deon McPhee and junior Rhema Fuller. McPhee is the most active with 20 tackles and a pair of sacks.
Offensively, look for Connecticut to try and control the ball with a pair of talented tailbacks in Terry Caulley and Cornell Brockington. Caulley did not play against West Virginia last year due to injury, but has come back to have a fine season as UConn’s top tailback in 2005. In seven games he has run for 540 yards and scored six touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
“He’s a very explosive player,” said Rodriguez. “He’s a shifty guy and he kind of reminds us a little bit like Avon Cobourne who we had a few years ago.”
Brockington spells Caulley and has run for 250 yards and four touchdowns in seven games. Last year Brockington ran 23 times for 90 yards against West Virginia.
Senior wide receiver Jason Williams of nearby McKeesport, Pa., leads Connecticut with 23 catches for 237 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Dan Murray has caught 14 passes including three touchdowns.
West Virginia (6-1), meanwhile, has been able to get a number of its walking wounded healthy but must shake off the rust coming from the longest inactive period in school history. Hurricane Wilma canceled the Mountaineers’ game at South Florida on Oct. 22 and it has since been rescheduled for Dec. 3.
“I think our practice routine was pretty good,” Rodriguez said. “We just tried to keep them thinking football and that’s the main thing you worry about for 18 days: is their mind wandering off?”
The idle time has helped nose guard Ernest Hunter (high ankle sprain) return to the field, although Rodriguez doesn’t expect him to be able to play an entire game. The coach said quarterback Adam Bednarik’s sprained foot is improving and he will back up redshirt freshman Pat White Wednesday night.
White was set to make his first college start against South Florida. The Daphne, Ala., native engineered West Virginia’s 17-point fourth-quarter comeback against Louisville and he was also responsible for the Mountaineers’ 24-point fourth-quarter outburst at Maryland.
For the season, White has completed 31 of 52 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns. He has been more effective as a runner gaining 304 yards and averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
True freshman Steve Slaton is coming off a pair of 100-yard performances against Rutgers and Louisville and now leads the Mountaineers in rushing with 459 yards and a 6.1-yards-per-carry average. Slaton ran 31 times for 188 yards and scored six touchdowns in the triple-overtime win over Louisville 17 days ago. The Levittown, Pa., resident leads the Mountaineers with seven TDs while playing in just five games.
Junior linebacker Boo McLee leads a West Virginia defense that ranks second in the conference to Connecticut with 50 tackles and six tackles for losses. The Uniontown, Pa., resident has a pair of sacks.
Senior strong safety Mike Lorello shows 47 tackles and five tackles for losses to go with a team-leading three sacks.
Wednesday night’s game will kick off at 7:30 pm and will be televised nationally on ESPN2 (Dave Barnett, Craig James and Rob Stone). Fans can still obtain a two-for-the-price-of-one ticket coupon at any United Bank location statewide and can redeem it up until game time. Coupons are also available at MSNsportsNET.com. A special fireworks display will take place at halftime.