EAST HARTFORD – “Uninspiring” is an uninspiring word to describe the performance of the UConn football team against FCS opponent Maine Thursday night in their 2016 season opener at Rentschler Field. Lackluster, maybe. Lethargic, that could work. For a large portion of the night, there were no words for it.
At the end of the night, the Huskies pulled out a 24-21 victory, and avoided a minor doomsday scenario. It will go into the standings as a success. But it was certainly not pretty.
“I don’t know pretty wins,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said after the game. “Get your heart medication out, here we go. It’s going to be a four quarter battle.”
From the opening play from scrimmage, the Huskies’ offense looked sluggish and overwhelmed despite facing an inferior opponent. The offensive line struggled to handle Maine at the line of scrimmage, and the game plan was reluctant to let quarterback Bryant Shirreffs throw the ball down the field. UConn ran just 11 offensive plays over the course of their first three drives, with two drives ending in three-and-outs.
Maine’s offense wasn’t much better to start the game, as their first two drives stalled quickly. But on the Black Bears’ third drive, they exploited UConn’s pass defense for a pair of big plays. First, quarterback Dan Collins hit Jaleel Reed over the middle for 48 yards into UConn territory, and three plays later Josh Mack took a screen pass 20 yards for the game’s first score. The Huskies were suddenly in a 7-0 hole that no one saw coming.
The Huskies did respond well, putting together a 16-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Ron Johnson. The drive featured at least four rushing attempts by three different players: Johnson, Sherriffs and shifty running back Arkeel Newsome. That variation kept the Huskies’ legs fresh, although Shirreffs risked his body multiple times by failing to slide at the end of a run.
“We have three guys in the backfield that can all carry the ball at an excellent rate,” Johnson said. “It keeps [the defense] guessing. That’s what we want to continue to do from here on out.”
Both teams had lengthy drives after that, with Maine’s 8-play drive ending in a missed 37-yard field goal and UConn’s 9-play drive falling short of field goal range as the time elapsed in the first half. Despite a rough offensive start and some poor clock management on the final drive, UConn had a reason to be optimistic at the half.
However, the Huskies began the second half with another pair of putrid drives, earning boos from the crowd at Rentschler Field. Shirreffs was not phased.
“I don’t really hear anything from the stands,” Shirreffs said. “That’s just something that I block out, so I didn’t even hear that.”
Shirreffs responded quite well, and his offense began to put things together on their third drive of the half, picking up 61 yards over the course of three consecutive plays. Newsome and receiver Noel Thomas made a pair of nice plays after the catch, and then Johnson bursted into the end zone from 21 yards out for his second touchdown of the game.
Then the UConn defense began to falter. Collins quickly led Maine down the field, hitting Reed for a 40-yard strike over two defenders to tie the game at 14-14. The talented Huskies’ secondary had some uncharacteristic breakdowns Thursday night.
The Huskies’ offense answered by going right down the field to the Maine 14-yard line, before Najee Goode blindsided Shirreffs on a cornerback blitz, forced a fumble and brought it all the way back the other way to give the Black Bears a 21-14 lead with 9:56 remaining in the game. Time to worry.
Again, Shirreffs and the offense answered. The redshirt junior quarterback broke free for the longest of his 20 carries Thursday night, sprinting 35 yards to the Maine 13-yard line and setting up an eventual Newsome touchdown run to tie the game. The UConn offense was much livelier in the second half, and more creative in its play calling.
But as the offense roared to life, the defense continued to let Collins excel through the air. The Maine quarterback took his team the other way into UConn territory, setting up a 47-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Black Bears a lead with 1:48 remaining. The Huskies then made one of the biggest plays of the night, as defensive lineman Mikal Myers blocked the kick and allowed the crowd at the Rent to briefly exhale.
“We had been getting penetration all game,” Myers said of the guys alongside him on Maine kicks. “We knew one of us had to get our hands up off the penetration and get it blocked. I was just the lucky one to get my hands up.”
One more time, Shirreffs led his unit the other way. With a series of small rushes and completions, the Huskies set up a game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt for kicker Bobby Puyol to punch through, and he did just that. Disaster averted. A loss to Maine, a lowly FCS opponent with a brand new coaching staff, would not be in the cards. This would not be a repeat of UConn’s 33-18 loss to FCS member Towson to open the 2013 season.
A win is a win, and despite all the negatives, the ever-positive Diaco quickly found the biggest bright spot after the game: the late-game execution.
“In 2015, we didn’t finish those [close] games in the past, and we did tonight. I’m very excited about that, and very excited about the team, and their intestinal fortitude, and their guts, and their grit. And the ability to execute down the stretch, and put enough plays together to win the game.”
UConn is 1-0, and will travel to face conference rival Navy next Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.