By JOHN RABY, AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) _ West Virginia first-year coach Dana Holgorsen only has to look at the tape of last year’s game to realize no rousing speeches will be necessary before the Mountaineers play Connecticut on Saturday.
The turnover-filled overtime loss ended the Mountaineers’ BCS hopes, and reliving the pain was all the nudging the players needed this time around.
“Without having to use a bunch of motivational tactics this week, our guys realize that the game last year against UConn didn’t end up the way that they wanted it to,” Holgorsen said.
Heading into their Big East opener, things are different for No. 16 West Virginia (4-1) and Connecticut (2-3) since the last meeting.
West Virginia is outscoring opponents nearly 2-1 and the Mountaineers are keeping the mistakes to a minimum.
The Huskies are a year removed from their Fiesta Bowl appearance but lost to non-BCS school Western Michigan last week under first-year coach Paul Pasqualoni.
West Virginia lost four of seven fumbles and scored one touchdown in last year’s 16-13 setback to Connecticut. One of those fumbles came on the 1-yard line in overtime. UConn then kicked a field goal to win the game.
Quarterback Geno Smith was among the guilty parties, losing a fourth-quarter fumble that led to a tying touchdown.
“We had them, but we let it slip out of our hands,” Smith said. “Any loss is tough to deal with. We want to get out on the field and prove ourselves once again.”
Beating West Virginia began a five-game winning streak that allowed UConn to capture the conference title, and quarterback Johnny McEntee is counting on another turnaround this year.
“We know last year we were 3-4 and people were talking how they are now, that we’re not going to make a bowl,” McEntee said. “And when we beat West Virginia, we turned it around. So we all know that and nobody’s given up on the season. We know we could still win the Big East.”
To do that, McEntee will have to have a big role. The walk-on who had played in two games over the past two years outdueled two others to become UConn’s starter four games into the season.
In last week’s 38-31 loss to Western Michigan, McEntee completed 22 of 39 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. But a defense that returned nine starters allowed Western Michigan’s Alex Carder to throw for 479 yards and five scores.
“We will certainly try as best we can to tighten up our coverage this week and hopefully do a better job of rushing the
passer,” Pasqualoni said.
Adding to Pasqualoni’s preparation headache is the emergence of West Virginia’s Dustin Garrison, who infused life into a struggling ground game by rushing for a freshman-record 291 yards on 32 carries in a 55-10 win over Bowling Green. Until that point the Mountaineers had averaged 75 yards as a team.
“West Virginia’s ability to run the ball, West Virginia’s ability to throw the ball, they have you spread out across the
field,” Pasqualoni said. “It just makes it really, really hard.
It’s just a huge challenge.”
UConn will again be without cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who injured a knee two weeks ago against Buffalo. That leaves the Huskies even more susceptible against Smith, who’s throwing for 342 yards per game, and a trio of receivers each averaging at least five catches.
Besides Garrison, the game will feature another one of the Big East’s up-and-coming rushers. Freshman Lyle McCombs has three 100-yard games for Connecticut and has scored five touchdowns. He’ll go up against a West Virginia defense allowing a league-worst average of 127 yards on the ground.
Pasqualoni went 8-6 against West Virginia as Syracuse’s coach from 1991-2004, including a 3-2 mark in Morgantown.
“It is an intense place to play,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
But a sellout isn’t guaranteed, something that irked Holgorsen last week when there were at least 16,000 empty seats in the cold and rain against Bowling Green.
So Holgorsen called out the fans to fix it.
“Whatever our expectations are with our players as far as preparing every week and going to the game and playing our best, I highly encourage our students and our support to take the same approach,” he said. “You only get seven opportunities a year.”
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)