Football: Shirreffs steps in to lead Huskies back from disaster in season opener

Connecticut quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) sets to pass during the fourth quarter against Holy Cross during an NCAA college football game Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in East Hartford, Conn. UConn won 27-20. (Stephen Dunn/AP)

At halftime Thursday night at Rentschler Field, it looked like UConn was courting disaster in its season opener. Hosting local rival and FCS opponent Holy Cross, the Huskies came out flat in the second half on both sides of the ball, leading to a 20-7 halftime deficit against a team that they were expected to handle easily.

Then, an unlikely hero emerged in the second half to help save Randy Edsall’s second UConn debut from ending in disaster: Bryant Shirreffs, the redshirt quarterback unceremoniously benched by Bob Diaco last season before losing an offseason quarterback competition to junior college transfer David Pindell.

Shirreffs led the Huskies to 20 unanswered points and an eventual 27-20 win to save face on Thursday night.

“You gotta give credit to Bryant, in terms of him coming in and doing the job that he did. It shows me a lot about him, in terms of how he handled the situation that he put himself into,” Edsall said after the game.

Pindell had his moments during his Division I debut, but a pair of scoreless drives to open the second half led Edsall to replace him with Shirreffs, who started nine games last year before Diaco replaced him with Donovan Williams. Edsall said that he discussed bringing Shirreffs into the game at halftime with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.

“David did some good things when he was in there,” Edsall said. “As we came out to start the second half, I just said ‘Hey,’ because I knew what we had to do to win. And I just felt that by making the decision (to bring in Shirreffs), it was going to give us the opportunity to win.”

Shirreffs led touchdown drives on each of his first two possessions, before adding another late touchdown to give the Huskies breathing room.

“It felt great. I got to see a lot of people smile and be happy, and any time you win, it’s a great feeling. I’m tired of losing,” Shirreffs said of his performance.

In the postgame press conference, Edsall relayed a story from the previous week, in which Shirreffs came into his office and told the coach that he was “all in” and that he would do anything he could to help the team succeed.

“[Coach Edsall] told me to be ready because he never knew if I was going to have another shot, or when that shot might be, and it happened to be this game,” Shirreffs said of the conversation.

After a lengthy offseason competition, the newcomer Pindell won the starting job over the veteran Shirreffs, and after Thursday night, the starting job seems to be up in the air. Pindell praised Shirreffs’ performance to lead the team back in the second half and talked about the support he received from the senior, but there is an important decision to be made in the coming week.

“That’s not my decision, that’s up to the coaches, but no matter what, we’re going to keep making each other better in practice, no matter who’s the starter,” Pindell said.

Connecticut running back Nate Hopkins (11) is greeted by quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) in the end zone after scoring in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Holy Cross, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in East Hartford, Conn. (Stephen Dunn/AP)

Have a day, Nate Hopkins

While shifty senior back Arkeel Newsome had trouble finding room on the ground Thursday, redshirt freshman Nate Hopkins stuffed the stat sheet.

Hopkins ran 11 times for 108 yards, an average of 9.8 yards per carry, and found his way into the end zone three times.

“We practice a certain way, and I just get out there and try to stay low and make my reads,” Hopkins said. “It was nice going from being redshirted to playing a significant amount.”

“This is the kind of thing you dream about,” Hopkins said of his big day.


Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.