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UConn warms to bowl appearance

Running back Jordan Todman and his UConn teammates are greeted after arriving in Phoenix to play in the Fiesta Bowl. Running back Jordan Todman and his UConn teammates are greeted after arriving in Phoenix to play in the Fiesta Bowl. (Ralph Freso/Associated Press)
By John Marshall
Associated Press / December 27, 2010

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PHOENIX — The University of Connecticut’s plane banked over the mountains east of town and gently touched down at Sky Harbor Airport.

Pulling up to a white tent with a big Welcome! sign and a mariachi band playing, the Huskies stepped into the warm desert sun, a brewing nor’easter 3,000 miles behind, a monumental opportunity just ahead.

Yeah, they could get used to this.

“Just getting off the plane, this hasn’t happened before, with all these people and the press conference,’’ UConn coach Randy Edsall said yesterday after the Huskies arrived for the Fiesta Bowl. “Plus, we haven’t been to a bowl where it’s been this warm. Sometimes you pinch yourself.’’

Not Oklahoma. The Sooners have been down this road before.

Oklahoma is one of college football’s power programs, winning seven national titles, 43 conference championships, and 25 bowls in 44 appearances. The Sooners have been to the Fiesta Bowl twice, too, so they know all about making the trip west.

Problem is, Oklahoma doesn’t have many fond memories of playing here.

In 2007, the Sooners were upset by trick-playing, BCS-busting Boise State in what may be the most memorable of the 39 Fiesta Bowls. Oklahoma followed that up with a disappointing loss to West Virginia the next year as heavy favorites.

Not wanting to take the chance of another desert dud, the Sooners have switched up everything they could from previous trips, staying in a different hotel, practicing at another site — anything to keep from getting that here-we-go-again feeling before New Year’s Day rolls around.

“Obviously, the last time out here wasn’t too positive, so we switched most things we were able to,’’ Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “We were given the option coming in and we took a different venue and a different practice site.’’

Everything about this trip is new to the Huskies.

Connecticut joined the Football Bowl Subdivision just nine years ago and has been a member of the Big East for seven. The Huskies gradually have been building their program up, making four straight bowl appearances and winning three of those, including last year’s Papajohns.com Bowl over South Carolina.

UConn got off to a rough start this season before stringing together five straight wins to earn the tiebreaker over co-Big East champions West Virginia and Pittsburgh and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, the program’s first BCS berth.

So what if the Huskies are 17-point underdogs and had trouble selling their allotment of tickets. This is a big step for a school known more for its national title-winning basketball programs.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,’’ Edsall said. “To get here this quickly and to be at our first BCS bowl and to be in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s a dream come true.’’

Their dream could turn into a nightmare if they don’t play well against Oklahoma.

The Sooners’ bid to add another national championship to the trophy case ended with midseason losses to Missouri and Texas A&M in a span of three weeks. Still, Oklahoma went on to win the Big 12 championship by edging Nebraska in the title game and has the kind of speed and athleticism the Huskies haven’t seen playing in the Big East.

One glimmer of hope is Oklahoma’s BCS record of late.

Since rolling over Washington State in the 2003 Rose Bowl, the Sooners have lost five straight BCS bowl games. Besides the two Fiesta siestas, Oklahoma was knocked off by LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl, got run over by Southern California in the Orange Bowl the next year, and missed a chance at another national title in the 2009 BCS Championship against Florida.

“Sure, we’re anxious to play well and win a game,’’ Stoops said. “We’re always looking forward to it.’’

So are the Huskies.