UConn kicker Michael Tarbutt pushed a game-tying 33-yard field goal wide right as time expired to seal the Huskies’ fate in a 41-38 loss to American Athletic Conference rival East Carolina Sunday at Rentschler Field.
Both teams finished with 596 offensive yards. The Pirates’ Thomas Sirk torched UConn through the air for 426 yards and three touchdowns, while UConn’s Bryant Shirreffs threw for a career-high 406 yards in defeat, along with three touchdown passes.
“It wasn’t what we wanted,” said UConn head coach Randy Edsall after the game. “We’ve got to continue to learn from the things we do out on the field, go out to work and get better.”
The Huskies’ day began inauspiciously as Shirreffs missed a wide-open Hergy Mayala down the field for what would have been an easy 75-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Mayala suffered an ankle injury on the next play and left the game, reappearing later on the UConn sideline with crutches and a boot on his right foot.
UConn punted and on the ensuing position East Carolina went right down the field for the first of five first half scoring drives. A 17-yard touchdown pass from Sirk to Davon Grayson gave the Pirates an early 7-0 lead and kicked off big days for both Sirk and Grayson.
The offense responded in turn, as Shirreffs found redshirt freshman Mason Donaldson wide open over the middle of the field for a 45-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Running back Arkeel Newsome helped set up the score with a nice gain on a screen play, which put him over 1000 career receiving yards.
UConn’s defense failed to capitalize on the moment, surrendering a first down after a sack put East Carolina into a 2nd-and-18 situation. The Pirates capped that drive with another touchdown pass from Sirk to Grayson, this time beating cornerback Jamar Summers for a 24-yard strike to go up 14-7.
An unlucky bounce on the next possession led to a Shirreffs interception and prime scoring position for the Pirates, who quickly capitalized with a bruising 6-yard touchdown run from Derrell Scott.
The UConn offense continued to falter while the Pirates buffered their lead with a pair of field goals from kicker Jake Verity.
Before the half, however, UConn put together a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped with a 1-yard plunge from Nate Hopkins on 4th-and-goal. The drive took 3:59 off the clock and put the Huskies within two possessions, 27-14, entering halftime.
Grayson opened the second half with a bang by going for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage out of the break. The Pirates wideout finished with 11 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns for the day.
UConn bounced back with a 12-yard touchdown pass for Donaldson, his second of the game as he stepped up in Mayala’s absence.
“When Hergy [Mayala] went down, we go by that motto that the next guy has to hop in and do the same thing as the guy in front of him, if not better,” said Donaldson of his role and performance. “It was surreal.”
The Pirates scored yet another touchdown on their next possession, a 14-yard run from Husseim Howe to the right pylon, but it was all UConn from there as they tried to climb back.
The Huskies went on a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ended in a Newsome touchdown run, followed by a 12-play, 77-yard drive that ended in a short field goal to pull within 10 points. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s unit was clicking after a slower first half.
“When we did our job, you saw what took place,” said Edsall of the comeback and how frustrating it was to not play that way in the first half.
East Carolina nearly put the game away with a lengthy drive after that, but Verity missed a 39-yard field goal to keep the score at 41-31. Newsome then responded with a special play, busting tacklers near the UConn sideline before sprinting away for a 79-yard touchdown pass to pull within seven. The running back finished with 170 yards receiving on eight catches.
UConn’s defense got a stop to get the ball back with 2:34 left in the game and renewed hope after a crucial holding penalty by converting on 3rd-and-22.
The Huskies inched closer and closer before running out of time and bringing the field goal unit onto the field to try and tie the game. However, Tarbutt pushed his kick wide, giving the Pirates their first win and denying UConn’s comeback efforts.
“Sometimes you don’t perform the way you need to,” Tarbutt said of the missed kick. “Coach Edsall came up to me and told me that there’s going to be another opportunity in the future, and I need to perform when that comes.”