EAST HARTFORD— After two consecutive slow starts, including a heartbreaking loss in the game’s final seconds to Navy last week, the UConn football team hoped to get out to a fast start against a lackluster Virginia team.
Instead, the Huskies (2-1, 0-1 the American) showed more of the same against the Cavaliers (0-3 overall), but managed to avoid a second-straight loss thanks to 13 unanswered points and a missed field goal from Virginia kicker Alex Furbank for a 13-10 victory.
“It’s a little mind-boggling,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said of the team’s slow starts. “We had altered things this week at practice to start fast…We have to find ways as a staff to think outside the box. They’re trying hard, it’s not them, it’s just offensively we have to get back to the lab and create some more things to get us moving a little bit faster.”
With Virginia down by three and just 1:33 left to play, quarterback Kurt Benkert led the Wahoos downfield and converted a crucial 34-yard pass on 4th and 10 to give the Cavaliers the ball inside the UConn red zone with under a minute to play and no timeouts. After a short run from Benkert, Virginia scrambled to send out the kicking unit with under 20 seconds left to play.
As the clock wound down, kicker Alex Furbank, who spent last year as a member of Division III Randolph-Macon’s soccer team, frantically got ready for his second-career kick in his first ever football game at any level. While ball was snapped just before time expired, Furbank’s 20-yard attempt went wide left to seal the Huskies’ second victory of the year.
“You’re hoping for a push and we got the push,” Diaco said of Furbank’s kick. “If you rewind the play I’m sure you’ll see a real significant surge into the backfield from the players. They did a wonderful job.”
The missed field goal bailed UConn out of yet another slow start. Virginia opened scoring first with a 23-yard field goal from Furbank midway through the first quarter, and went up 10-0 after Albert Reid ended a 13-play, 90-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown run. Reid finished the day with a team-high 73 rushing yards on 15 attempts, and backfield teammate Taquan Mitchell added 66 yards on the ground and 40 receiving yards.
UConn managed to answer a few drives later thanks to back-to-back explosive plays from running back Arkeel Newsome. Newsome ripped off a 38-yard run on 2nd and 12 to bring the Huskies into Virginia territory. One play later, Newsome ran for 19 yards to put UConn on the Cavaliers’ 11-yard line. After the Huskies failed to get through the Wahoos’ front line, Bobby Puyol put UConn on the board with a 21-yard field goal to trail Virginia 10-3.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Huskies drove down the field on their first drive of the fourth quarter thanks to the play of wide receivers Noel Thomas and Hergy Mayala. Thomas caught two passes from quarterback Bryant Shirreffs for 17 yards on the drive, and Mayala caught a pass for 17 yards and drew a crucial defensive pass interference penalty to keep the drive alive and put UConn on Virginia’s side of the field.
The offensive progress would come to a halt after Newsome fumbled the ball on a pitch to the outside, giving the Cavaliers the ball with under 12 minutes to play. The fumble was the only blip in a resurgent performance for the Ansonia, Connecticut native, as he finished the night with a season-high 77 yards on 13 carries.
“He had a great game,” Shirreffs said of Newsome. “I love watching him squirm through the defense from my angle.”
Fortunately for Newsome, Jamar Summers came up with a big-time stop. A week after his fumble return for a touchdown tied the game against Navy at 21, Summers came through once again with the game on the line, intercepting a Benkert pass right after Newsome’s fumble to give the Huskies another chance to tie the game.
“I just relied on my film study to make that play,” Summers said. “Our defense talked to each other and said we need to make a play and my number was called.”
Thanks to a handful of timely Virginia penalties, UConn was able to do just that.
On 3rd and 20 at the Virginia 25-yard line, Cavaliers cornerback Juan Thornhill was called for pass interference on Mayala to keep the drive alive. After a short rush from Newsome and an incomplete pass from Shirreffs, a Virginia facemask penalty on 3rd and 8 gave the Huskies yet another first down. Two plays later, Shirreffs scored UConn’s first and only touchdown of the day to tie the game at 10 with 7:55 left to play. Shirreffs would finish the day with 154 yards on 13-24 passing and 33 rushing yards.
“The momentum swing was the biggest in the game after that pick. That was definitely huge,” Shirreffs said.
The Cavaliers nearly answered immediately following Shirreffs’ touchdown, driving 51 yards downfield and entering UConn territory after a 28-yard reception from Reid. Following Reid’s reception, the Huskies’ defense stepped up with four straight stops, including a crucial one on 4th and 1, to give UConn the ball back with under five minutes left.
Shirreffs rushed twice for 24 yards, then hit Thomas for a 23-yard pass to put the Huskies on the Virginia 26-yard line. After the Cavaliers stopped any further UConn progress, Puyol put the Huskies ahead with a 43-yard field goal to put UConn up 13-10 and give the senior kicker his second game-winning field goal in three weeks.
“He’s great. He trains that way, he eats, sleeps and breathes his craft,” Diaco said of Puyol. “He’s done a fantastic job.”