EAST HARTFORD – For the first time in the history of the Civil Conflict rivalry between UConn football and UCF football, the trophy will belong to the team formerly known as the Citronauts from Florida. UCF (4-3, 2-1 The American) rode its stingy defense and a poised performance from quarterback McKenzie Milton to a 24-16 win over the Huskies (3-5, 1-4 The American) on a rainy day at Rentschler Field.
“[UCF] played hard, and well, and made enough plays to win the football game,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said after the game.
The UConn offense came out of the gates quite well, as they doubled their season total for first quarter points with a pair of field goals from kicker Bobby Puyol. The Huskies faltered once they entered the red zone, as they could not punch the ball into the end zone, but they moved the ball efficiently on the ground using running back Arkeel Newsome, who finished the day with 110 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Much of their early success can be credited to a strong performance from the offensive line, which saw slight tweaks from previous weeks. Richard Levy, who usually lines up at right guard, moved to left guard while Trey Rutherford moved from the right to the left.
“We’re just trying to find that cohesive, collective five guys that can reset the line of scrimmage,” Diaco said of the offensive line changes.
Four of the first five UConn drives ended in points, although they scored only one touchdown for a total of 16 points. All four scoring drives entered into the red zone.
These points helped the Huskies build a 16-7 lead with 1:25 left in the first half, although the lead could have been much more. The missed opportunities to score points in the red zone would end up haunting them later.
“It’s just unacceptable to make that many trips to the red zone and come up with so few points,” said UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who finished with 242 passing yards on 18-34 passing.
UCF trimmed the lead to just two points entering the halftime break as Milton completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Akins with just one second remaining on the clock.
“You can’t give up points in the final two minutes of the half. That was a big deal. That was a big moment,” Diaco said.
The Knights came out of the halftime break firing, as Milton led enough touchdown drive in just 2:33 to put UCF up 21-16. Milton, a freshman playing in place of injured senior Justin Holman, looked able as a passer and nimbly evaded the Huskies’ pass rush on numerous occasions.
“He was athletic running around, just chucking it up in the air,” said Diaco, who talked about the floaty nature of some of Milton’s throws “There was a lot of opportunities out there to go take it away, no doubt. It would have been a difference in the game.”
A 50-yard field goal from Matthew Wright put the Knights up by eight points with 14 minutes left, forcing the Huskies to deliver offensively. They responded first with a pair of drives ending in punts, but after that, moved the ball down to the UCF 16-yard line and 21-yard line on two respective drives. Both drives ended with UConn turning the ball over on downs as Shirreffs failed to find open receivers.
“Poor, ridiculous,” Diaco said of the team’s red zone performance. “If you count the 21 [yard line], if you’re going to dump that into your red zone, [that’s] seven trips in the red zone.”
Time ticked out as UCF claimed a 24-16 win, dropping the Huskies to a 3-5 record, including a 1-4 mark in American Athletic Conference play. Time is running out for the Huskies to punch their postseason ticket, as they sit three wins away from a bowl bid with just four games remaining on the schedule. They will get their next chance a week from Saturday as they travel to face East Carolina, and Diaco was very aware of the stakes.
“We’re going to go back to work, we’re going to mourn this sickening loss for the 24 hours, just like we celebrate for 24 hours, we mourn for 24 hours, and then we’re going to move on. Because you’ve got another opportunity to hit the field and coach the players that you love.” And they’ve got another opportunity to put their helmets on, and go to practice, and run around the field in the game that they love.”
“These guys have done so much. They’ve come so far. The staff is trying as hard as it possibly can. And in the games, in five of them, it hasn’t been enough. I take full accountability for that,” Diaco said. “How are we going to do that? We’re going back to work.”
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.