Football: Shirreffs, offense shine in heartbreaking loss to USF

UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs running with the ball against South Florida in UConn's homecoming game. He finished the game with over 100 rushing yards. (Bailey Wright/The Daily Campus)

EAST HARTFORD— Last week, the UConn football team racked up 433 yards of total offense in a 40-13 win over Central Florida in their best offensive performance of season.

The Huskies (3-4, 1-2 American) followed up their offensive explosion last Saturday with an even better statistical performance but a much different result, posting 528 yards of total offense but only mustering 20 points in a 28-20 loss to South Florida (3-3, 1-1 American).

“I felt like we had a great week of practice, I really do. The guys were focused and locked in,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said about the offense heading into the USF game. “I really like points though. We need more points.”

The 528 yards of total offense were the most ever under Diaco and the highest since the Huskies posted 538 yards in 45-10 win over Memphis in 2013.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said of the high-yardage, low-point total performance for the offense. “If you look at in the big scheme of things, yards don’t really matter when you’re not putting up points, and we didn’t put up enough points and that’s why we lost.”

Shirreffs turned in his best performance yet as a Husky, throwing for 365 yards and rushing for 100, both career highs. The redshirt sophomore also added two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) with just one interception. His 465 yards of total offense were the most by a single player since Casey Cochran totaled 466 yards against in the 2013 win over Memphis.

With his 27-yard rush in the fourth quarter, Shirreffs became the first UConn player to rush for 100 yards since wide receiver Deshon Foxx ran for 102 yards against Central Florida last season. Shirreffs ability to extend plays with his legs has helped add an entirely new dimension to UConn offense, best exemplified by his 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

The Jefferson, Georgia native’s stat line marked the first time the Huskies had a 300-yard passer and 100-yard rusher in the same game since 2012, when running back Lyle McCombs and quarterback Chandler Whitmer accomplished the feat against Western Michigan. Shirreffs is the first player in UConn history to do both in the same game.

“Bryant is growing. He cares so much. He makes a lot of great decisions, very few bad ones,” Diaco said. “He can win and keep drives alive with his legs, and he’s doing a better job and more appropriate job of making that decision.”

Shirreffs utilized a multitude of weapons to try and put points on the board. Noel Thomas caught seven passes for 94 yards while tight end Alec Bloom led all receivers with 97 yards on five catches. Tommy Myers added three catches for 33 yards, and Tyraiq Beals had two catches for 35 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown catch.

Much like he has been in the last two games, Arkeel Newsome was a jack-of-all-trades for the UConn offense. The Ansonia, Connecticut native caught eight passes for 74 yards and added 58 yards on the ground. Newsome also returned three kicks for 89 yards for his second straight game with over 200 all-purpose yards.

“They’re talented, and they’re buying into the system. The system is strong, it’s got good plays, good players to execute it,” Diaco said of the offense. “Noel is an outstanding player. Arkeel is an outstanding player. The combination of Tommy and Alec is a problem for defenses. Those are two matchup issues for the defense.”

Despite the enormous offensive numbers on the stat sheet, it was the numbers on the scoreboard that haunted the Huskies. While the offense seems to be improving, the loss to the Bulls pumped the brakes on UConn’s aspirations for their first bowl bid since the 2010-11 season.

“Pitch the stat sheet because it’s not relevant, because it’s a bizarre read, and I take full responsibility and take full accountability,” Diaco said. “It’s a sad, hard loss.”