EAST HARTFORD – Two weeks can be an eternity when it comes to football.
Just two weeks ago, the UConn Huskies were absolutely crushed by the Memphis Tigers. Playing at home on a Friday night, the Huskies allowed a school-record 70 points and the Tigers exceeded 700 yards of total offense in a feat that may never be matched again in the UConn record books.
“The 70 points definitely put us in a reality check, something that really took everyone’s heart that night [against Memphis],” UConn linebacker Junior Joseph said. “The next day we took a stand and said that that’s never gonna happen to us again.”
Fast-forward to this Saturday afternoon, and the Huskies (3-4, 2-3 the American) may have put in one of their best defensive performances in recent memory, locking down the Tulsa Golden Hurricane offense in what turned out to be a nail-biting 20-14 victory for Homecoming Week at Rentschler Field.
“It’s good to win, a great win for us,” UConn head coach Randy Edsall said. “The kids played hard, kept battling all the way. So we’re going to enjoy it, but also there were some things that took place in that game that we’ll be able to correct … because we did have opportunities to put [Tulsa] away and we didn’t take advantage of that.”
The Golden Hurricane (2-6, 1-3 the American) couldn’t get points on the board until there was just 7:09 remaining in the game, when running back Shamari Brooks ran into the end zone from eight yards out. Tulsa’s two-headed rushing attack of Brooks and D’Angelo Brewer, who ranked seventh in the NCAA with 824 rushing yards entering Saturday’s game, was held to just 194 yards, well below their season average of 271.7 yards per game.
More impressive was the fact that UConn’s pass defense – the worst in the nation by a large margin – allowed just 259 yards through the air Saturday, much improved from its season average of 392.5 yards per game. A big part of that improvement was the Huskies’ menacing pass rush that earned six sacks Saturday afternoon.
“We went to a four-man front in some passing situations, but a lot of times pass rush is just effort. I think the guys’ effort has been better,” Edsall said. “I think it’s a total effort by all the defensive linemen in terms of basically, taking care of their responsibilities.”
UConn’s defense was nearly perfect in the first half, and blanked Tulsa for the first three-and-a-half quarters. The halftime shutout was the first time the Huskies had allowed zero points in a first half since doing so against Louisville on Nov. 24, 2012.
The UConn defense was a bit shaky toward the end of the game, however, allowing two scores in the last seven minutes and nearly allowing a game-losing touchdown in the last seconds.
“I don’t think that was good for my blood pressure, that whole drive [at the end of the game],” UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. “But that’s why we pray as a team.”
Joseph, UConn’s leading tackler, strained his back mid-way through the fourth quarter when the defense started to struggle but came back and made the game-saving pass breakup to ensure the victory.
“I just had to suck it up for my teammates … whether I was hurt or not and just fight through it,” Joseph said. “I was glad I was able to be put in that position to make that play for my teammates.”
The Huskies and their improved defense will stay at home next Saturday night when they take on SEC opponent Missouri at Rentschler Field.