EAST HARTFORD— The UConn football team’s quest for back-to-back bowl game appearances has officially come to an end.
Like it has so many times this season, the Huskies’ poor first quarter performance proved costly as Temple (7-3, 5-1 The American) rode three first quarter touchdowns to defeat UConn 21-0 and hand the Huskies (3-7, 1-6 the American) their seventh loss of 2016. The loss marks the first time UConn was shutout since a 41-0 loss to Cincinnati in 2014. The Huskies have scored nine points this season in the first quarter and are the only Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country without a first-quarter touchdown.
“I’m sad for our seniors. They made an investment and worked to not have to be home for Christmas. Based on our record right now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said on failing to make a bowl game. “It’s a miserable loss and it’s been a miserable season. That’s just a fact.”
Even after offensive coordinator Frank Verducci was replaced by David Corley following UConn’s 41-3 loss at East Carolina, the Huskies offense showed little to no improvement, even with fresh faces in the lineup.
Junior quarterback and team captain Bryant Shirreffs was replaced by true freshman Donovan Williams, whose redshirt was burned in order to start under center against the Owls. Williams finished the night with 69 yards on 12-21 passing as the Huskies totaled 160 yards of offense.
The 160 yards of total offense were the fifth fewest yards by the Huskies in their time in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Four of those five games of fewest yards of total offense have occurred in the three years Diaco has been at the helm.
“It definitely killed the nerves,” Williams said of making his first career start. “I still have a lot to learn, but I’m taking it one step at a time.”
Williams did most of his damage against Temple with his legs, rushing for 66 yards, including a 43-yard run in the first quarter as part of UConn’s only drive that ended on the Owls’ side of the field in the first three quarters. That eight-play, 57-yard drive ended with a 35-yard field goal from Bobby Puyol that was blocked by Michael Dogbe. The 6-foot-4 Williams brought the Huskies’ offense into Temple territory just once more on UConn’s final drive of the game.
The offensive line played a major role in Williams’ struggles, giving the freshman quarterback barely any time in the pocket. Williams was sacked 12 times and hurried twice as the line was simply overmatched by the top-ranked defense in the American Athletic Conference.
“[Williams] was under spectacular duress,” Diaco said. “[The offensive line’s play] is a huge part of the issue, and very solvable, because we have players that are very physical and athletic, and want to be good, and want to compete. That group has been underwhelming.”
Temple’s Jahad Thomas torched the Huskies early, catching a 23-yard touchdown pass from Phillip Walker to score on their first drive of the night. Nearly three and a half minutes later, Thomas and Walker struck again, with Thomas catching a 10-yard pass to put the Owls up 14-0. Thomas would finish the day with 73 receiving yards and two scores while adding 83 receiving yards.
Tight end Romond Deloatch wrapped scoring for the night with Temple’s third touchdown with 20 seconds left in the first quarter. Walker hit Deloatch in the end zone with a 10-yard pass to cap off a 206-yard opening quarter for the visiting Owls.
Walker and the Temple offense had two more chances to extend their lead in the game until it was spoiled by UConn safety Obi Melifonwu. The senior safety picked off Walker twice in the end zone, with one in the second quarter and another in the fourth quarter. The two interceptions gave Melifonwu a team-high four on the season.
“The first one was a spin-off, and they usually throw the ball to the flat or to the corner. I just read it right. The second one, I lost my eyes a little but on the tight end and I ended up scrambling up on the line where he threw it and I picked it,” Melifonwu said of his two interceptions.
Following the loss, the Huskies head into a much needed bye week before hitting the road to take on New England rival Boston College. The bye week should provide Williams with important time to further develop and allow the rest of the team to recover.
“The team needs a break. They’re in central nervous system shock based on the grueling ten weeks, camp, and then the record, which is so far beneath our expectations that it makes the hurt 100-fold,” Diaco said.