EAST HARTFORD – In an evening filled with a surprising amount of offense, the 2017 edition of UConn football’s annual Spring Game took place on a wet Friday night at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. It was a confusing affair with plenty of team swaps occurring throughout the scrimmage, but Team UConn prevailed over Team Huskies 27-24.
To prevent any injuries and keep things running smoothly on both sides of the ball, the Spring Game was played without any kickoffs, with no punt coverage and four 12-minute quarters, rather than usual 15-minute quarters. Additionally, the fourth quarter would be played on a running clock. Despite all the rule changes, the entire team played with plenty of effort that you like to see in a scrimmage like this.
“I thought they handled it really well,” said head coach Randy Edsall. “I was pleased with the effort this evening, and of course, there was things that we did well and things we got to work on. But overall, the thing that I liked is the fact that, from where we started from the first practice to the end of this [Spring Game] is that we got better. We improved.”
From the get-go, you could tell that new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wanted his offense to keep up a fast tempo start-to-finish. Redshirt senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs did just that and got the ball rolling early for Team UConn, orchestrating a 70-yard drive in 3:20 that culminated in a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver to Tyraiq Beals. That early touchdown was UConn’s first touchdown in the first quarter of a game since last year’s Spring Game.
The Huskies knotted things up just 1:37 later after two quick throws by redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Bisack got them deep in UConn territory. A defensive pass interference put the offense inside the five-yard line and they eventually would get the touchdown on a one-yard rush by redshirt freshman running back Nate Hopkins.
Hopkins made a critical mistake with about two minutes to go in the first quarter after Team UConn punter Brett Graham pinned the Huskies on their own 8-yard line. The young running back fumbled and couldn’t stop the ball from rolling into his own end zone, where defensive back Tahj Herring-Wilson fell on the ball and put UConn up 14-7. Despite the mistake, the offense was doing surprisingly well in the first quarter, a new sight for UConn fans who have experienced very little offense the last few years.
“They’ve adjusted to [the up-temp offense] well,” Edsall said. “Overall, I thought both sides really adjusted to the tempo and now they understand the kind of shape they have to be in in order to play the kind of style we’re going to play.”
Shirreffs agreed with his head coach and suggested he really enjoyed the up-tempo style offense after experiencing it in a game situation. In fact, at one point early in the second half, the two offenses managed to score a touchdown a piece in just about two minutes, including one on a flea flicker trick play that worked to perfection, leaving wide receiver Hergy Mayala wide open for an 80-yard score.
“I loved [the offense]. I love it, period,” Shirreffs said. “It’s definitely encouraging to see productive plays and see a lot of points being scored. And seeing the defense tired. It’s a good feeling and then just everybody is smiling on the offense.”
Late in the game, with a running clock in effect and down 24-20, Shirreffs led Team UConn a masterful drive down the field in a short amount of time, including a nice 34-yard gain to Dixon down the left hashmarks. The experienced QB handed it off to his running back Hopkins to take a 27-24 lead for Team UConn with just 1:46 remaining in the game, Hopkins’ third total touchdown on the day, and the win.
Ultimately, Shirreffs finished 19-33 on the day with 310 passing yards and two touchdowns. His counterpart, Bisack had a less impressive stat line going 19-29 with 222 yards and one touchdown. Mayala and Keyion Dixon were the standout receivers with 111 and 94 yards, respectively.
The quarterback play for this team will be immensely important next season and the Spring Game was a litmus test of what we might see in 2017. Whether Shirreffs, Bisack or some other quarterback starts next year, the offense is looking pretty solid. However, all Edsall cares about is if his quarterback manages the game well.
“There was inconsistency out there again,” Edsall said. “We just have to be more consistent and make sure we’re doing the things were being coached to do and just go and execute. It’s one of those things where if you just execute and do your job, good things will happen. You don’t have to be Superman."