There’s no way around it: the ending of last weekend’s UConn football game was disastrous for Huskies fans- it was a debacle.
Let’s recap. Trailing by four points to American Athletic Conference rival Navy late in the game, UConn drives down the field with relative ease, landing on the one-yard line with 17 seconds left on the clock and one timeout remaining. UConn head coach Bob Diaco then calls his final timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty when the offense is unable to get a play off.
OK, so using the timeout wasn’t ideal. But the Huskies still had three downs left to run, and with some quick throws they could have three shots at the end zone in 17 seconds. Just don’t run the ball, because it’s going to be extremely difficult to get a second play off if the rushing attempt is stopped short of the end zone.
UConn called a run play, halfback Ron Johnson was stonewalled by the Navy defense and the clock ran out as defenders prevented UConn players from getting off the ground and hurrying to the line of scrimmage. Game over, Huskies lose, 28-24.
Not good. Diaco tried fruitlessly to explain his decisions after the game, but the damage was done. There have been head-scratching game management decisions by the Huskies under his leadership before, but this was the most befuddling, and devastating.
Now, I am certainly in favor of some doomsday discourse when the situation calls for it, but the UConn fan base should pump the brakes on this one and consider the positives. Of course, the ending to Saturday’s game looms large because it affects what letter is placed next to this game on the schedule, but it’s a long season. Twelve games long, in fact, with the opportunity for postseason football afterwards.
During the second game of the season, and a difficult one at that, the Huskies showed great potential that indicates they may be a serious threat over the remaining 10 games. The Navy football team had not lost at home since Sept. 2014. UConn fell behind 21-0 early, struggling defensively as all teams do when first confronted with the Navy triple-option offense, and then battled all the way back to take a three-point lead with 24 unanswered points.
The Huskies could not hold on to that lead, but they displayed remarkable effort on both sides of the ball to even make that comeback possible in the first place. Just a week and change ago, we watched UConn squeak by FCS opponent Maine, who came into that game as four-touchdown underdogs, and wondered how in the world those Huskies would fare against teams on their competitive level. Now, we know they can compete in the American, and although they will start at the bottom of the conference standings, they can certainly climb back into it.
The most impressive part of UConn’s performance Saturday, without a doubt, was the way they moved the ball through the air. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who looked shaky as a passer in the win over Maine, was absolutely excellent for the Huskies. Shirreffs set a UConn single-game record for completion percentage by completing 23 of his 26 passes for 239 yards. Although a good portion of those throws were bubble screens and other easy fare, he looked assured in the pocket and displayed strong accuracy throughout the game.
The most impressive part of Shirreffs’ performance was his execution of the late-game offense. After taking over at his own 23-yard line with 3:08 left in the game, he took the Huskies down to the Navy one-yard line in nine quick plays, including six completions on six attempted passes. Instead of ditching the pocket and looking for short gains on the ground as he often does, he trusted his arm and his receivers’ abilities to make plays, and when he did choose to tuck the ball away and run, it led to crucial first downs. It’s unfortunate that the drive ended as it did, and that Shirreffs didn’t really get a chance to end it on his own terms.
On the other side of the ball, the UConn defense showed a lot of heart to battle back from such a brutal start to the game. Navy’s triple-option offense had them flummoxed initially, even when the Midshipmen elected to throw the ball deep down the field, but the Huskies found their bearings in the second half and showed the kind of tackling discipline that Diaco has instilled in the unit over the last few years.
When everything came together Saturday, it seemed like UConn was going to pull out a signature victory. It really did. That was not the case, but it’s now obvious that the building blocks are in place for Diaco and company, and there’s nowhere to go from that game but up. If the team can put this Navy game in the rearview mirror and look ahead, there is potential for great things to come.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.