STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Massachusetts and Connecticut are set to take their old football rivalry to a new level.
UMass is making the jump from the Championship Subdivision to the Mid-American Conference and Thursday’s game at Rentschler Field will be the first between Bowl Subdivision teams from New England since the Huskies visited Boston College in 2004.
“We are very excited about it and the possibilities and potential of what Connecticut-UMass could be,” UConncoach Paul Pasqualoni said. “Playing UMass would give us a chance to have an Eastern game regardless of the location. It’s exciting for fans, easy to get to and has a chance to be just a great game.”
UMass and UConn have played 71 times since 1897, but their last meeting was in 1999, before the Huskies made their jump to Division I. UMass won that game 62-20 and leads the overall series 36-33-2.
The Huskies come into this one as clear favorites. The Minutemen are expected to experience a few growing pains in their first FBS year, coming off a 5-6 season in 2011.
Just don’t tell UMass that.
“I think this first game is going to be a big statement game,” Minutemen senior safety Darren Thellen said. “Nobody is coming into the game saying, ‘I want to lose.’ But, as long as we come out and compete and do well, I think a lot of respect will be given to us.”
UMass has a new coaching staff, led by first-time head coach in Charley Molnar, who was the offensive coordinator under Brian Kelly at Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He brings in a new spread offense that will be run by redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn. He was forced into the job when junior Kellen Pagel reported to camp still suffering symptoms from a concussion he suffered last season.
“It’s always good to play against a freshman, because they still are learning,” said UConn defense end Trevardo Williams, one of seven seniors starting on defense. “So we’re going to go out there and put pressure on him and have some fun. Our job is to cause chaos.”
UConn also will have a fresh face at quarterback. Sophomore transfer Chandler Whitmer began his career at Illinois and played last year at ButlerCommunity College in El Dorado, Kansas. He beat out last year’s starter, Johnny McEntee and three others for the job.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little guy, you know, being a Division I quarterback,” Whitmer said. “And now it’s my opportunity.”
The Huskies, picked sixth in the Big East’s preseason poll, are coming off a 5-7 season, a year after making it to the Fiesta Bowl. Cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, back after a knee injury that kept him out for most of last season, said UConn is looking to regain some respect, and also wants regional bragging rights.
“This is big for New England, and we’re treating it that way,” he said. “There’s not a lot of New England rivals with just us, BC and UMass, and this one kind of died off a bit. We know we’re where they want to be and they are also coming in with a chip on their shoulder.”
The Huskies played their first full Division I season in 2002, and have won shares of two Big East championships and played in five bowl games since.
“I think everybody looks at UConn,” Molnar pondered, “and said, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?'”
As the rivalry develops, Thellen said he expects both teams to benefit, perhaps landing top regional recruits who might have journeyed out of New England otherwise.
“Staying local was a priority for me,” said Thellen, of Brockton, Mass. “But there were not very many Division I options. There’s actually three big Division I schools you can attend now. So, I think that will influence more players to stay local.”
This is the only game currently scheduled between the two rivals, though both have expressed an interest in continuing the series. UMass already has signed on for a three-game series with BostonCollege beginning in 2014. And the Huskies have been talking to BostonCollege about renewing a rivalry that ended when BC went to the ACC in 2005, and UConn led a lawsuit seeking to block the move.
“Somebody, the people that make these decisions are bigger than me, but somebody has to figure this out that the three teams can find a way to play each other,” said UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown, a former UMass head coach who led the Minutemen to the national championship game in 2006. “For New England college football to have three programs at the I-A level, they have got to play each other. It is good for the fan base and good for New England. ”
It’s a sentiment Molnar shares.
“What I want to happen at the end of the game,” he said, “regardless of the outcome, is that fans on both sides, 40,000 people in that stadium say, ‘Let’s do this again next year.'”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.