EAST HARTFORD— Call it the cherry on the fish cake.
The UConn football team (3-9, 1-7 American Athletic Conference) capped an exceptionally miserable 2016 season with one final stink bomb Saturday as they fell 38-13 to conference rival Tulane at Rentschler Field on Senior Day for their sixth consecutive loss.
“Tough game, tough year. Long, hard year. The team tried hard today, they strained. Nobody quit. Everybody fought,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said after the game. “Expectations were spectacularly high, and obviously, performance and production was spectacularly low. The minute I step away from this podium, I’m going to get started on ’17.”
The Green Wave entered Saturday having not won a conference game in 14 tries, and without a win in their season finale since 2003. At halftime, they led 24-0, making it 109 unanswered points allowed by UConn. When the clock ran out on the first half, UConn officially registered 16 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown, the equivalent of four full games.
The Huskies rallied with a pair of second-half scores from shifty running back Arkeel Newsome, but make no mistake. Saturday was a disaster.
Tulane got off to a fast start, blocking a punt after stopping UConn’s first offensive possession and turning that play into three points with a 23-yard field goal. They added to that lead on their next possession, as Josh Rounds ran for a 1-yard touchdown to put the Green Wave up 10-0 with 7:33 remaining in the first quarter.
UConn failed to score in the first quarter Saturday, completing a season in which they were outscored 76-9 in the first quarter.
The Green Wave built their lead to 24-0 in the second quarter with a pair of short rushing touchdowns. The Huskies’ best first-half drive ended in a blocked field goal on a 29-yard attempt from kicker Bobby Puyol. UConn went to the half trailing 24-0, looking to bounce back from a 21-0 loss to Temple on Nov. 4 and a 30-0 loss to Boston College on Nov. 19.
UConn found their way on the scoreboard to snap the streak in the third quarter, as Newsome broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and sprinted away for a 62-yard touchdown run. The Huskies failed to convert on the two-point conversion, so they trailed 24-6 with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter.
Tulane’s lead jumped further as they responded with a touchdown drive of their own to go up 31-6 just five seconds into the fourth quarter. UConn’s defense struggled to stop the run, giving up 4.6 rushing yards per carry on 56 carries, despite a phenomenal performance from safety Obi Melifonwu. Melifonwu recorded 24 tackles, tying the all-time UConn single game record.
“Just going out there flying around, trying to make plays, trying to help the team in any way possible,” Melifonwu said of his record-breaking performance. “It’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
UConn would add a 20-yard touchdown catch from Newsome, the first touchdown pass of freshman quarterback Donovan Williams’ career, down the stretch as they fell 38-13 to close the 2016 season.
Despite the dreadful finish, Diaco was confident that he will be leading UConn out for the 2017 season. The head coach, who just finished his third season at the helm, has a pricey buyout included in his contract should UConn choose to move on this offseason.
“No doubt, I [will be back next year]. I mean, I have a contract until 2021,” Diaco said of his job status. “We got the team back to a bowl in year two, ahead of schedule. There’s a lot of things that have been fixed, a lot of things to continue now…the foundation is there and laid. We’ve got to get better at playing football, and we will.”
For Diaco and his beloved team, it was a year that began with promise, but spiraled further and further out of control. A case of Murphy’s Law, maybe. Whatever the case, there are plenty of issues to fix after such a gigantic step backwards in 2016.
“We were so much better than we were in 2015, entering 2016. It’s incredible. And then, it was just like this string of horrible circumstances, and they all played on the year. And an incredibly challenging schedule."