EAST HARTFORD – The UConn football team has not been perfect through three weeks. There have been some confounding game management decisions, the offense has occasionally looked lost and the defense has surrendered big plays far more often than its reputation suggests.
But one positive quality that the team has displayed in abundance is resilience, and again that was a factor Saturday against Virginia at Rentschler Field. The Huskies (2-1, 0-1 The American) battled back from a double-digit deficit for the second straight week, and this time around they’ll leave with a victory rather than a devastating loss after Cavaliers kicker Alex Furbank pushed a game-tying 20-yard field goal wide left at the buzzer.
UConn came to life in the fourth quarter Saturday. The offense, which had looked overwhelmed in the first half, began to move the ball down the field with the help of wide receiver Noel Thomas’ after-the-catch ability, and some third down penalties on Virginia defenders. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs looked generally more comfortable in the pocket, and he received valuable assistance on the ground from shifty running back Arkeel Newsome.
“How we were driving the ball in the second half shows how we can move the ball, and how we overcame some adversity,” Shirreffs said after the game.
In the first half, Shirreffs found himself on the run often, eventually finishing with 20 rushing attempts, as UConn offensive line struggled to carve out space and protect the pocket. The second half was a slightly different story, as the Huskies countered with quick passes and took some shots down the field, a couple of which drew defensive pass interference calls.
“They had some really good blitzes in the first half, and they were playing really well. Luckily, we had some plays to exploit those blitzes,” Shirreffs said.
UConn put together two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, with a potential third one ending in a Newsome fumble. The two drives combined: 17 plays, 87 yards, totaling 10 points. It was enough to get the job done and secure the victory, but head coach Bob Diaco acknowledged that the coaching staff needed to help the team find its way onto the scoreboard earlier.
“We had altered things this week at practice to start fast,” Diaco said. “We got to find ways as a staff, think outside the box. [The team] is trying hard. It’s not them. Just, offensively, we need to get back to lab and create some more things to get us moving a little bit faster.”
Starting fast was a theme commonly echoed by UConn players after the game, and it will certainly be discussed further as the Huskies move forward.
“We expect to start fast,” Thomas said. “They did a good job on us defensively, and in the second half we just came out with our hats on fire. We plan to start fast.”
The team’s resilience also extends to the defensive side of the ball, where UConn was torched early and often by short passes from Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert. The Huskies settled down after that, and shut out the Cavaliers in the second half.
“Coach talked to us and told us to just calm down, that we can roll with them. That’s what we did. We went out there with our utmost confidence and we ran with them,” said cornerback Jamar Summers, who snatched a crucial interception in the fourth quarter.
None of the Huskies’ three games have been easy, but they’ve come back to win two of them, and they very easily could have taken the third one as well. Next Saturday against old rival Syracuse, they will look again to start fast, and if they do not, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll see that resilience again.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco addresses media before the game
With the talk of conference realignment heating up after the Big XII met with potential candidates recently, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco briefly took questions from media members before the game in East Hartford.
“I don’t know what the Big XII is going to do, and I don’t know how long this is going to go. It’s been public, prolonged, and now there’s talk that it’s going to go on even longer. Our goal has been to stay focused on the business of the conference, and don’t dwell on it. But, we’ve done a lot of contingency planning,” Aresco said. “We know what we need to do should something happen. If nothing happens, then we go on and we refocus very quickly.”
Aresco went on to emphasize that he had no “inside knowledge” about what was going on with the Big XII, and that his meeting with Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby at the football game between Houston and Oklahoma on Sep. 3 did not feature talk about realignment. The two men did talk, however, about the American getting a “possible heads-up” once the Big XII makes its decision.
Aresco did offer a hint about the American’s plans for expansion should some of its teams move to the Big XII. The league currently has 11 members, with Navy serving as an associate member for football only to give that sport 12 teams.
“If we lost two [teams], for instance, we could stay at 10 and play a championship game. We clearly want to play a championship game. We want to have 10. If for some reason we lost more than that, we’d have to get back to 10, I’m not going to argue that we wouldn’t. But we could stay at 10, and I think that we could be extremely strong regardless.”
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.