Purdue stands a chance of being the champions of the “independents” in 2021, as it faces two of the seven independent FBS programs. While our third opponent is the much more famous independent, UConn is new to the game of going it alone. To learn more about the Huskies I spoke with Aman Kidwai of The UConn Blog.
T-Mill: UConn took last year off and Purdue sort of did with a weird 6 game schedule. Does having that year off feel like an SMU “Death Penalty” situation and did you lose a lot of experience with going elsewhere to play?
Aman: Hm this is awkward, UConn actually had a mass exodus before the pandemic. By the summer, after the 2019 season, about 20 players transferred or announced their intention to transfer, leaving a lot of people worried about what the 2020 season would look like. Lucky for UConn it didn’t happen.
During the cancelled season, retention has been less of an issue. So the season off did not feel like the death penalty. The real penalty was the 7 years we spent in the AAC, which felt like being banished to Siberia.
T-Mill: It is no secret UConn has been pretty bad. What signs of improvement are there, especially after a year off?
Aman: Because they didn’t play at all last year, the signs of improvement are all in our heads. The assumption is that returning most of the good players from a young roster and getting a year to develop without getting demoralized for 12 weeks in the fall may make us better than a bottom-five team in the country.
T-Mill: The offense at least has most of its key contributors back. Is there enough firepower to get in a shootout with Purdue?
Aman: Certainly not proven firepower. Running back Kevin Mensah is good, at receiver most of the contributors are back but I’d hesitate to say there are a lot of proven pass-catching options. Then, most importantly, under center UConn is very green. Nobody on the roster has more than half a season’s worth of reps and so I highly doubt Purdue will need to score a ton to beat the Huskies.
T-Mill: The defense... hoo boy, did it look bad before COVID. Can they slow down what should be a solid Purdue passing game?
Aman: I have some reason for optimism for the defense. There is enough returning talent including DT Travis Jones and some pretty good linebackers. But if Purdue’s passing game is solid I don’t think they’ll have much trouble. UConn’s secondary has been a weak point so even if they’re a little better this year it probably won’t evolve into a strength this quickly.
T-Mill: How hard is it as a program going on its own as an independent?
Aman: It is definitely extra work for the athletic department, but I think most fans would say it’s been great so far, just based on what the future schedule looks like. UConn didn’t have a lot to be excited about on the AAC schedule, so having more than one game with opponents that fans are familiar with and that recruits are going to recognize that makes more regional sense for us, was the plan and the idea and so far they’re sticking to it. UConn has home and homes with Purdue, Duke, Maryland, Wake, and likely to be in longstanding series with the likes of Army, UMass and Buffalo. Right now, these are our peers, and the p5 ones are more like aspirational peers, so it’s all good here.
T-Mill: There are going to be a lot of Purdue fans out your way with this game and the Hall of Fame Tipoff in November. What advice do you have for their visits?
Aman: Ah a fun one. First, you should note that both of these events are taking place in two locations that are NOT on or particularly near to the UConn campus in Storrs.
The football game will be at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. In the immediate surroundings, you can enjoy the Cabela’s adjacent to the parking lot of the stadium and a lovely Burger King right nearby. For the more refined palette, Rein’s Deli is a hidden gem. You are also not far from Hartford and West Hartford which have lots of great food options. Manchester, CT has a mall and movie theatre and every fast food chain imaginable, as well as some finer dining options as well. If you’re traveling here, you can fly to Hartford-Bradley Airport and rent a car. To get to Mohegan Sun, you may want to fly to Providence, Rhode Island.
The basketball tournament is taking place at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. This is attached to Mohegan Sun Casino, which has loads of entertainment options as well as a pizza place, Frank Pepes, that is world famous. For those who are interested, there is also a Bobby Flay’s (TM) Burger Palace. In the area, you are not far from the southeastern shore, which has some lovely destinations: Mystic Seaport, Mystic Aquarium, beaches on Groton Long Point and just across the border in Rhode Island, and the UConn - Avery Point campus, which is absolutely beautiful and right on the water. If you’re feeling particularly squirrely, you aren’t too far from Newport, Rhode Island, a hoity-toity vacation destination that has historic mansions that you can tour, the church where JFK got married, and the Tennis Hall of Fame. But I guess it’ll be November so you probably don’t want to do that.