By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — The annual game between Rutgers and Connecticut had been developing into an entertaining regional rivalry, with seven contests in the last dozen years decided by a touchdown or less.
But Saturday’s game in East Hartford will be the final one between the two programs as conference foes. Rutgers is leaving the American Athletic Conference for the Big Ten next season, and that has added a little motivation to this game for both teams.
“It is a big deal,” said UConn quarterback Casey Cochran. “It’s a big deal for our fans, it’s a big deal for our team. But if you think too much about those extra details, you can trip yourself up a bit.”
Connecticut (1-9, 1-5 American) is playing mostly for pride. The Huskies are looking to win their second consecutive game after an 0-9 start.
Rutgers, which has lost two in a row, is looking for a sixth win that would make the Scarlet Knights (5-5, 2-4) bowl eligible.
“I think the players are aware of what the situation is,” said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood “Any of those things that serve as motivation are great. But the ultimate motivation is to be 1-0. The ultimate focus is to be 1-0, because something like bowl eligibility is a product of being 1-0.”
Rutgers last came into East Hartford in 2011, with a chance to win a share of the Big East title. The Huskies instead handed the Scarlet Knights a 40-22 loss.
“That game is a great example of what can happen when you take your focus off the task at hand, which is to be 1-0, and put the focus on ultimately what the result of that could mean,” Flood said.
Both teams have struggled to find a productive quarterback. Cochran is the third signal caller to start for UConn this season. He threw for just 111 yards last week, but led the Huskies to a come-from-behind 28-21 win at Temple, rushing for the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Rutgers plans to start senior Chas Dodd against UConn, after benching Gary Nova, a team captain. Dodd, who was a part-time starter as a freshman and sophomore, has thrown just 46 passes this season, after attempting just one as a junior. His last start was the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl, and he is 1-1 in two starts against Connecticut.
“I’ve obviously been waiting for the opportunity to present itself and I’m looking to take full advantage of it,” he said.
Here are five things to look for as UConn hosts Rutgers.
DIMINISHING RETURNS: Rutgers averaged 40 points while going 4-1 over its first five games this season. The Scarlet Knights have been averaging us over 16 points while going 1-4 in their last five. The teams they have beaten had a combined record of 14-41 going into Friday. The teams they lost to were a combined 45-8.
WINNING STREAK: Connecticut has not won two consecutive games since upsetting Pittsburgh and Louisville on consecutive weeks last November. They lost 10 in a row after that, before winning last Saturday at Temple. Linebacker Yawin Smallwood said the Huskies are hoping to build some momentum from that victory. “The young guys, they know how to win football games now,” he said. “They know what it takes to be successful. They had not seen that in the first nine games.”
BOTH WAYS: Rutgers Ruhann Peele is expected to get playing time on offense and defense against Connecticut. The wide receiver turned cornerback has both a touchdown catch and an interception this season. He’s been practicing at both positions this week because of an injury to receiver Leonte Carroo, which has left the Scarlet Knights thin at that position. “He’s worked very hard off the field in terms of managing his time,” Flood said.
THIN IN THE SECONDARY: Connecticut will likely play Saturday without starting safety Ty-Meer Brown, and two cornerbacks, David Stevenson and Jhavon Williams. Brown is out for the season with a neck injury, and Stevenson, who made his first start the year against Temple, suffered a season-ending knee injury. Williams has been recovering from a concussion. Byron Jones and Taylor Mack will start at corner against Rutgers. Obi Melinfonwu and Andrew Adams will get the call at safety.
END OF AN ERA: Because of conference realignment, this is the last scheduled game between the two programs, though both have indicated a willingness to begin a non-conference series. Saturday’s game will be the 33rd meeting between the programs since 1940. The Scarlet Knights hold a 22-10 advantage and have won six of the last eight.
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