It's a 'Fiesta' for Ryan, Frey
photo courtesy of the University of Connecticut Lehighton graduate Robbie Frey has rushed for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns for the Huskies this season. Frey also starts on all of Connecticut's special teams.
There was no reason for Mike Ryan and Robbie Frey to believe they were going to be part of something special when they signed to attend the University of Connecticut in February of 2007.
The Huskies had only been playing Division 1-A football since 2000, had just recently joined the Big East Conference after playing several years as an independent, and had suffered two straight losing seasons including a 2006 campaign that saw them go 4-8 overall and 1-6 in the Big East.
But Ryan and Frey were able to see past that. They both said they were confident that coach Randy Edsall and his staff would turn things around and they wanted to be part of it.
Four years later, it's obvious that the former TIMES NEWS area grid standouts knew what they were doing.
Ryan, a Marian High School graduate; and Frey, a Lehighton High School grad, are currently in Arizona with the UConn football team preparing to face Oklahoma in tomorrow's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Not only will it be their fourth straight bowl game since arriving at Connecticut, but it will be the first BCS bowl game in school history.
"It's pretty exciting," Ryan said last week during the Huskies Fiesta Bowl Media Day. "The entire team is ready for the opportunity."
Frey echoed that sentiment.
"It's amazing. Everyone is ready for the game. We can't wait to play," he said. "It took us a while to get started this year, but we really did a nice job of turning things around. We believe in ourselves."
While Ryan, Frey and the rest of the Huskies might enter the game feeling confident, not too many people outside of the program give them much of a chance against the high-powered Sooners.
UConn is the biggest underdog in any of the 35 bowl games this year as Oklahoma enters the game a 17-point favorite.
"We know that not a lot of people are giving us much of a chance against Oklahoma," Ryan said. "But we're used to being the underdog. That's fine with us. We're just going to work hard and believe in each other.
"Since the Louisville game, we've really played well. We feel we are peaking at the perfect time."
The Louisville game was undoubtedly the low point in the season for the Huskies. The humbling 26-0 loss dropped them to 3-4 overall and 0-2 in the Big East.
Since that game, however, UConn has reeled off five straight wins, including a BCS bowl clinching 19-16 victory over South Florida on the final weekend of the regular season.
"The West Virginia win turned the season around," said Frey about the overtime victory that came just six days after the loss to Louisville. "We never stopped believing in ourselves even when we were struggling, but beating West Virginia helped reinforce that belief for everyone."
Ryan said this Big East championship was even sweeter than the school's initial one during the 2007 season. That year, UConn lost the tie-breaker and watched West Virginia represent the Big East in a BCS Bowl.
"2007 was a redshirt year for both Robbie and myself," said Ryan. "This year, because we are both playing and contributing, it's even more exciting.
"This is what you work for during the offseason. Our goal was to win the Big East. To play a role in the team accomplishing that goal is a great feeling."
Ryan and Frey, who both have one year of eligibility remaining at UConn, have made contributions on the field during each of the last three seasons. But those contributions have grown significantly this year.
After seeing action as a reserve offensive lineman during the 2008 campaign, Ryan broke into the starting line-up part way through last season. He had started 19 straight games at left tackle over the past two seasons until an injury against Cincinnati in the Huskies' next to last game of the regular season caused him to miss the South Florida game.
Earlier this month, Ryan was named to the All Big East Conference first team offensive line.
"Coach Edsall always stresses that team success leads to individual glory," said Ryan. "The fact that I have so many great players around me and that I'm blocking for outstanding running backs like Jordan [Todman] and Robbie [Frey] makes my job easy.
"It's a great honor, but I couldn't have accomplished it without my teammates."
Ryan also said that the injury that sidelined him against South Florida is now healed.
"I had a dislocated kneecap, but I've been practicing and I'm back at 100 percent," he explained. "I'm definitely ready for the bowl game."
Frey has also seen his role expand this year.
A special teams standout since his redshirt freshman year, Frey has continued to excel in that area this season while also seeing plenty of time in the backfield as the team's second string tailback.
After carrying the ball five times in 2008 and 19 times a year ago, Frey has had 70 carries for 381 yards and four touchdowns this season. He also is the Huskies leading kickoff returner and is second on the team in all-purpose yardage, averaging 73.2 yards per game.
"I love playing special teams and contributing any way I can," said Frey, who starts on every one of UConn's special teams. "But the thing I'm really excited about is the fact that I received a lot more opportunities at running back this year.
"I know my job is to give [starting tailback] Jordan [Todman] a break when he needs one, so I'm always ready."
Frey, who missed two games midway through the season with a torn meniscus, has had double figures in carries in three games this season and went over the 100-yard mark against both Texas Southern and Buffalo. He also carried 15 times and scored a touchdown in an important late-season game against Cincinnati when Todman got banged up.
"I played behind some great backs during my career and I've learned a lot from them," said Frey. "Donald Brown is now playing in the NFL, Andre Dixon is in the USFL and Jordan [Todman] is one of the leading rushers in the nation.
"Mike [Ryan] and the rest of the offensive line do a great job as well. So I've really been blessed. I'm so thankful to be here at UConn."
With 32 victories, two Big East titles and four bowl appearances, the Huskies have been highly successful on the football field since Ryan and Frey arrived on campus.
It's something they both envisioned nearly four years ago when they signed their letters of intent.
They obviously knew what they were doing.