EAST HARTFORD — Leading up kickoff Saturday, UConn’s defensive game plan against Navy was simple: contain star quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
By the end of the first half, Reynolds showed why that game plan was easier said than done.
Reynolds and the Navy offense had three drives in the first half, all ending in touchdowns. The senior quarterback rushed for two scores and threw for another on a 19-yard pass to Jamil Summers. The offense converted all five opportunities it had on third down, and took a 21-10 lead into the half.
“You’ve got to get them really behind the chains because they are really tough,” head coach Bob Diaco said on stopping the Navy offense on third down. “You focus on the fullback, who has been a victimizing, menacing player. We did a nice job there but the quarterback did a fantastic job making all the right reads in the first half.”
The senior quarterback racked up 112 yards of total offense in the first half and finished the day with 142 yards rushing, 40 yards passing, and four total touchdowns, three of which came on the ground to lead Navy (3-0, 2-0 the American) to a 28-18 win over the Huskies (2-2, 0-1 the American).
“He runs the offense almost to perfection, so we almost have to be at perfection in order to be able to stop it,” safety Andrew Adams said of Reynolds.
UConn struck first and got out to an early 3-0 lead on their eight-play, 45-yard opening drive that culminated with a 38-yard field goal from Bobby Puyol. After Navy got out to a 14-3 lead with their first two scores of the day, the Huskies answered with 3:29 left in the first half when quarterback Bryant Shirreffs connected with a streaking Tyraiq Beals for a 39-yard touchdown to make it 14-10.
Beals was Shirreffs’ favorite target in the first half, catching five passes for 60 yards. Beals also added one rush for 15 yards on the game’s opening drive. The freshman wide receiver finished the day with a team-high six catches for 63 yards.
“He loves football, he’s a talented player, and he’s a tough guy,” Diaco said of Beals. “He’s has to get bigger and faster and stronger, but he’s going to make a lot of plays around here.”
Navy would close out the first half with with Reynolds second rushing touchdown of the day, spanning 77 yards in just 3:27 to end the half with a 21-10 lead.
“That was huge for us going into the locker room,” Reynolds said. “Our defense got a great stop and we had to go down and make something happen.”
The touchdown was the 72nd rushing touchdown of Reynolds’ career, passing Ricky Williams for the third most all-time. Reynolds would finish the game 73 rushing touchdowns, tying him for second all-time with Miami of Ohio’s Travis Prentice.
UConn managed to stop Navy on their first drive of the second half, stopping them on third down for the first time in eight tries.
“We got them in a lot of third down, third and mediums, third and short situations,” Adams said. “At the end of the day, we have to make the stops on third down and get them on fourth down.”
After UConn failed to score on their lone drive of the third quarter, Navy embarked on a 10-play, 69-yard drive that finished with a 10-yard touchdown run from Reynolds on the first play of the fourth quarter. Reynolds’ third rushing touchdown of the day gave the Midshipmen a 28-10 lead.
Just over seven minutes later, Shirreffs led the Huskies on a 68-yard drive that ended with a touchdown catch by Tommy Myers. Shirreffs found Noel Thomas three times on the drive for a total of 53 yards to get the Huskies into the Navy red zone. After a three-yard pass to Beals on 1st and 10 at the Navy 16, Shirreffs was picked off by Daniel Gonzales, but the play was negated by a Navy facemask penalty. Shirreffs found Myers on the next play for the tight end’s second touchdown of the season to make it a 28-16 game.
Shirreffs and the Huskies then converted the two-point conversion attempt on a pass to Thomas to cut Navy’s lead to 10 with 7:20 left.
Thomas then recovered Puyol’s onside kick to give the Huskies the ball on their own 44-yard line.
UConn failed to convert on four attempts after Arkeel Newsome dropped a low ball from Shirreffs on 4th and 8.
Even with the drop, Newsome finished the day as one of most impressive pieces of the UConn offense. The sophomore running back finished the day with 120 yards from scrimmage, including five catches for 51 yards as UConn’s feature back.
“We just had to get him the ball more often,” Diaco said of Newsome. “There were too many plays in the past when we would check down to someone else. So we tried to eliminate some of that and get him touches. I thought he had an excellent game.”
Despite being handed their second-straight loss, the Huskies have shown improvement on both ends of the field. As this young team gains more and more experience, they have the potential to be an even more dangerous team as the season progresses.
“Proud of the way they fought,” Diaco said. “We can build on that…Come out in the second half, outscore them 8-7, hold them down, get stops, move the ball, there’s stuff that’s really positive to talk about with our guys, with our team.”