EAST HARTFORD – The showdown between an offense’s No. 1 wide receiver and a defense’s No. 1 cornerback is always an important match-up in football. Especially so when the wide receiver and cornerback, in this case Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo and UConn’s Jamar Summers, respectively, find themselves on their positions’ watchlists for most outstanding player nationwide.
As the match-up went, the game went. Etta-Tawo set a Syracuse record with 270 receiving yards, many of those with Summers in coverage, as the Orange (2-2, 0-1 ACC) topped the Huskies (2-2, 0-1 The American) 31-24 at Rentschler Field on Saturday afternoon.
“We had too many plays that cause losing, that make it really impossible to win, that need to be eliminated, or rather minimized,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said after the game.
The game began especially well for the visiting Orange, who put points up on the board just 51 seconds into the game. Wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who was added to the 2016 Biletnikoff Award Watch List for the nation’s most outstanding receiver on Tuesday, beat UConn cornerback Jamar Summers down the field for a 57-yard touchdown.
After the Huskies’ offense opened their day by going three-and-out on the ensuing drive, Etta-Tawo beat Summers again for a 30-yard touchdown this time. After two drives, Etta-Tawo had five catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. For a typically strong UConn secondary that has struggled to begin this season, it was another inauspicious start.
Syracuse, 14-0. Total yards are 134 to 4. UConn secondary continues to get toasted over the top— Daily Campus Sports (@dcsportsdept) September 24, 2016
“It was a challenge. It was a challenge I didn’t come prepared for,” Summers said of covering Etta-Tawo. “I didn’t come fully mentally prepared. I was physically there, but not mentally. I was out of my game.”
Diaco stood behind his cornerback after the game.
“[Summers] is a great player, one of the best in the country, one of the best on our team. He’ll learn, look at his stuff, be critical. I have every confidence in the world,” Diaco said.
The UConn offense had its typical slow start in the first quarter, as they failed to score in the opening frame for the fourth consecutive game. Their fourth drive, which extended from the first quarter into the second, saw them begin to find some rhythm but ended with quarterback Bryant Shirreffs overthrowing an open Noel Thomas in the end zone on fourth down.
Despite that setback, Thomas was heavily involved as the Huskies began to find their footing on offense, and on defense as well. Thomas grabbed eight passes for 77 yards in the first half, while running back Arkeel Newsome added nine first half rushes for 46 yards on the ground. The defense, which looked bewildered by the pace of the Syracuse offense at the outset of the game, made some plays early on in defensive possessions to get off the field quickly.
UConn finally punched their way into the end zone midway through the second quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run from Ron Johnson, followed by a 6-yard touchdown run from Newsome on their next possession. All of a sudden, the Huskies had tied the game at 14 apiece with 34 seconds left in the first half. The Orange then zipped down the field behind a few completions from Eric Dungey for a 47-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer.
The second half opened with a fruitless possession for both teams, before UConn pieced together a 10-play, 35-yard drive that ended in a short field goal from Bobby Puyol to tie the game at 17. On that drive, Thomas had three more catches for 20 yards, on a day when he grabbed a whopping 14 passes for 111 yards and finished one catch shy of Geremy Davis’ single game school record.
“Me and Bryant [Shirreffs], we’ve been playing together for a while. We’ve done a million reps together. He trusts me, I trust him,” Thomas said of his connection with his quarterback.
Shirreffs then made a big mistake on the following UConn drive, as he tried to squeeze in a difficult pass on third down and was intercepted by Syracuse defensive back Cordell Hudson off a deflection. Hudson brought the pick back 20 yards for a touchdown to give the Orange a 24-17 lead.
On Syracuse’s first drive of the fourth quarter, they moved deep into UConn territory but kicker Cole Murphy badly shanked a 33-yard field goal that would have put the Orange up by two possessions.
The Huskies responded with a lengthy drive of their own deep into Syracuse territory, including a fourth down conversion on a fake field goal, but Shirreffs was stuffed on the goal line attempting to carry it in on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line. It was interesting play call from the UConn coaching staff, which had just called for three unsuccessful runs on the preceding goal line plays.
“Going back, I would probably buy some more time and throw it to the back of the end zone. I came up short. The linebacker made a good play and I didn’t. It came back to haunt us; it cost us the game,” Shirreffs said of his decision on the crucial play, which Diaco confirmed to be an option pass.
The Orange began their next drive deep in their own territory, but escaped on an excellent 59-yard catch from Etta-Tawo on third down with only a few minutes left. Syracuse followed that play with a few more third down conversions before Dungey sealed the win with a 6-yard touchdown run to go up by two scores. Tight end Tyler Davis grabbed a 24-yard touchdown from Shirreffs with 33 seconds left on a late drive, but the Huskies’ onside kick attempt failed and their chances to win were finally extinguished.
UConn will look to bounce back next Thursday as they face a seemingly insurmountable challenge: a trip to Houston to face the Cougars, who entered this week ranked No. 6 in the nation. The Huskies and the Cougars will kick off at 8 p.m. next Thursday.
CORRECTION: In our preview and recap of the UConn football team's game against Syracuse on 9/24, both articles described the Biletnikoff Award as an award given to the nation's top wide receiver. The Biletnikoff Award is in fact given out to any player eligible to catch a forward pass regardless of their position.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.