Prior to the beginning of this season, UConn football head coach Bob Diaco turned heads at American Athletic Conference media day when he said the Huskies would be competing for a College Football Playoff spot and a National Championship this season.
While the Huskies won’t be one of the four teams in the playoff this season, Diaco and his team have achieved the next best thing: bowl eligibility. The Huskies will almost certainly make their first bowl appearance since 2010 thanks to a 20-17 upset over No. 13 Houston on Senior Day at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
The victory will likely mark the first-ever bowl appearance for the 16 seniors on the team, who were honored in a pregame ceremony.
“They fought so hard, they’ve been through so much adversity, they’ve been through so many struggles. They’ve been the heartbeat and the backbone of this team,” Diaco said of the senior class. “They care so much about this team and turning this team back into a winner, which we’ve done.”
Senior captain Andrew Adams echoed Diaco’s statement postgame.
“It’s huge,” Adams said of the win. “Especially on senior day, this group of seniors put blood, sweat and tears into it for five years and we finally see our hard work paid off.”
UConn opened the game with a 7-0 lead and never looked back, scoring on their first drive of the game when quarterback Bryant Shirreffs threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Noel Thomas on his only pass attempt of the game. The score capped a six-play, 72-yard drive spearheaded by Arkeel Newsome, who rushed for 68 yards on the first five plays of the drive, including a 42-yard rush on the first play of the game.
Newsome would finish the night as the Huskies’ leading rusher, gaining 114 of the team’s 156 rushing yards against the top-ranked rushing defense in the American. The 156 rushing yards were the second-most yards the Cougars gave up on the ground all season, largely due to a stellar performance from the Huskies’ offensive line.
“I’m pleased with offensive line, they’re getting better, they’re doing a nice job,” Diaco said. “We weren’t under assault, there was a nice dent, when we needed a push we got it.”
The Huskies didn’t even manage to make it five minutes into the game to face their share of adversity. Minutes after tight end Tommy Myers was helped off the field with a significant lower left-leg injury, Shirreffs went down after Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts targeted the redshirt sophomore with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit. Neither player would return to the game.
With two focal points of the offense out of commission, their replacements filled in admirably to help lead the Huskies to Diaco’s biggest win in his two seasons at head coach.
“Next man in. That’s the thought process. These guys prepare,” Diaco said of Boyle and Garrett Anderson. “We lost two of our strongest stalwarts on the offense very quickly with Tommy and Bryant, so we had some moving part issues, but next man in.”
Tim Boyle replaced Shirreffs at quarterback, finishing the night 12-22 for 110 yards. Quarterback Garrett Anderson filled in for Myers after making the transition to fullback just a few weeks ago.
Houston and UConn traded field goals to give the Huskies a 10-3 lead. The Huskies would go up 10 thanks to another field goal from Bobby Puyol with 1:17 left in the third quarter.
Anderson made his mark in the fourth quarter when he recorded his first career catch on a crucial third-and-3 to keep the Huskies’ first drive of the quarter alive.
Four plays later, Boyle and Anderson would team up for one of the most memorable plays in UConn history in response to Houston’s first touchdown of the night on the previous drive.
Boyle took the snap and threw it backwards to Anderson out wide, who hauled in the initial pass despite it being tipped and launched a 45-yard pass to a streakingThomas for his second touchdown of the game. The pass gave the Huskies a 20-10 lead with 9:48 left to play.
“We’ve been doing it for a few weeks so we definitely had some reps at it,” Anderson said of the trick play. “We saved it for the right time, and I’m glad it was tonight. It worked out good.”
Houston didn’t take long to answer.
Brandon Wilson returned the kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown just 12 seconds later to make it 20-17.
After a seven-play drive from UConn, the Cougars took over with 5:44 left to play, quarterback Kyle Postma helped the Cougars convert on a crucial third-and-5, but took a huge hit in the process. Normal starter Greg Ward spelled Postma for two plays before Postma returned and eventually found Demarcus Ayers by the sideline on fourth-and-9. However, Ayers’ catch was ruled incomplete after a review, and the Huskies took over on downs.
UConn managed to only take 25 seconds off the clock on four plays due to Houston using all three of their timeouts and were forced to give the Cougars one more shot with 1:42 to play.
Postma got Houston one first down before leaving the game once again to be replaced by Ward. Ward would hit Ayers for an 18-yard gain, but was then intercepted by UConn’s Jamar Summers to seal the Huskies’ sixth win of 2015. The interception was Summers’ team-high seventh of the season.
Postma would finish the day 16-27 for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while Ward went 1-4 for 18 yards with his interception by Summers.
The UConn defense held the dynamic Houston offense to its worst performance of the season with a season-low 17 points and 318 yards of total offense. Prior to its first-ever meeting with the Huskies, the Cougars were second in the American in scoring, averaging 43.5 points per game.
“Coach Diaco is a mastermind on defense. He put the puzzle pieces in the right spot and the guys just made plays,” Adams said.
The Huskies succeeded defensively by forcing turnovers. Houston entered the game having only turned the ball over nine times on the season and leading the country in turnover margin with plus-18. UConn caused four Cougar turnovers on the night, allowing the Huskies to dominate possession and rein in an offense that can score on almost any play.
With the win, the Huskies are now bowl eligible for the first time since reaching the Fiesta Bowl in 2010. After a 2-10 season in Diaco’s first year as head coach, the team has come together faster than expected, and has a chance to post a winning record for the first time since in the post-Randy Edsall era next week against Temple.