EAST HARTFORD— For the third time in four years, an FCS opponent had UConn on the ropes late into the second half. Three years ago, the Huskies dropped their season opener to a talented Towson team. Two years’ prior, UConn held on for an ugly 19-16 win over Stony Brook.
This year, it was more of the same as the Huskies fended off a lowly but scrappy Maine team for 24-21 win largely in part to the strength of special teams. The unit did a little bit of everything Thursday night at Rentschler Stadium, ranging from blocking kicks, strong punts and kickoffs to timely plays when it mattered most.
“Justin [Wain] did a fantastic job…Field goal block came with a big play, obviously game-winning kick at the end from Bobby Puyol and the rest of the battery,” Diaco said. “Super excited with that third [of the team].”
As the offense sputtered early, Wain kept a surprisingly effective Black Bear offense at bay with five punts on the day for a total of 213 yards. Three of Wain’s punts pinned Maine within their own 20-yard line, which bought the offense just enough time to get going just enough to keep the Huskies in the game.
“Justin has been improving every year and it’s awesome to see what he does in practice translate into the game,” senior kicker Bobby Puyol said.
While special teams was consistent all night, the unit turned it up a notch with the game on the line. After missing a 37-yard field goal late in the first half, Maine kicker Pat Leonard had a chance to be the hero with a 47-yard attempt to give the Black Bears a three-point lead with under two minutes to play, but UConn captain Mikal Myers got just enough of Leonard’s kick to keep it well short of the goal post and keep the Huskies’ hopes at victory alive.
“Almost every single one was within an inch or two inches of being blocked. They were getting a great surge and a great push inside,” Diaco said of UConn’s pressure on field goals and extra points. “We just knew if they could push a little bit more, knife a bit more, if the ball’s trajectory was a bit lower, it would only take an inch, two inches and it was going to be blocked because so many of the other ones before that were in jeopardy.”
Nine plays later, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs did just that, leading the Huskies down field to set up Puyol for a 37-yard field goal and the first game-winner of his collegiate career. It was only fitting that on a night where the offense and defense struggled, the special teams unit was there to finish off the Black Bears.
“It felt good off my foot. I looked up real quick and it was good and it was awesome to see,” Puyol said. “My last game-winner was freshman year [in high school], when I was quarterback of my JV team…Drove the ball down the field and then kicked the field goal so it was pretty funny to now finish off my senior year and do it.”