PAT EATON-ROBB,Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Paul Pasqualonisays he considers talk about coaching for the first time against Syracuse, a program he led for 14 years, to be just another distraction to deal with while preparing his Connecticut team for a big conference game.
The Huskies (3-5, 1-2 Big East) and the Orange (5-3, 1-2) are both coming off losses, and both need a win Saturday to stay within shouting distance in the Big East. Syracuse could become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season, while UConn hopes to keep alive its slim hopes for its fifth consecutive winning season.
“When you’re distracted — and the fact that I worked at Syracuse is a distraction — it’s not fair to the team, not fair to the coaches or the players,” Pasqualoni said this week. “It has absolutely nothing to do with this game.”
Few others believe that.
Pasqualoni was fired at Syracuse seven years ago after posting a record of 107-59-1, with four Big East titles, nine bowl appearances and six bowl victories. He was let go just three weeks after being given a vote of confidence to complete the final year of his contract.
The game has been dubbed the “PasqualoniBowl” by some in the media. UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee says the team clearly wants this one for “Coach P.,” who also has received some heat for the Huskies’ poor performances after taking over a team that went to the Fiesta Bowl last season.
“We know it’s a big game for him,” McEntee said. “Every game is a big game. It’s a big game because it’s our next game. But, yeah, we know it’s a big game and yeah, we’d like to get a win for him.”
Syracuse isn’t oblivious to the history either, and their players and coaches also expect emotions to be a bit heightened.
“It’s going to be a game where the coaching staff is going to want to coach their best game and showcase what they can do, and we want to showcase what we can do,” safety Shamarko Thomas said.
Thomas and his teammates say their biggest priority Saturday will be stopping UConn running back Lyle McCombs, the Big East’s second leading rusher at almost 104 yards per game. The redshirt freshman has been the lone bright spot in an offense that is averaging 22 points and 320 yards of offense a game.
“I think whether you’re trying to force a team to throw the ball or force them to run the ball, if you can make an offense one-dimensional, it makes it a little bit easier to attack,” Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. “But again, they give you a lot of different things that you have to be careful about, and we have to be sure to keep everything in front of us and not give up any big plays.”
The Orange are also looking for some consistency on offense. After racking up 443 yards in an upset of West Virginia, the team managed just 246 in losing to Louisville last week.
The Syracuse offense has averaged over 145 yards on the ground in its last five games, while the Huskies are giving up just under 90 yards rushing per game.
But the Huskies have been torched through the air, where opponents are averaging over 283 yards per game, including 419 yards in their loss at Pittsburgh.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib has completed 65.4 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
The Orange have lost just one Big East road game since 2009, but that came last week to the Cardinals. The Huskies are 2-2 at home this season, with three straight home games coming up.
“We still can make it a winning season,” defensive tackle Kendall Reyes said. “Coach talks us up in practice and the season can be what we make of it. We still have four games left. We are taking it one game at a time.
“We can’t quit, there is a lot of football left and we are ready to go.”
Associated Press Writer John Kekis in Syracuse contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.