EAST HARTFORD – It was far from pretty, but the UConn football team pieced together their best all-around performance of the season against the Cincinnati Bearcats. After going down 9-0, the Huskies scored 20 unanswered points for a 20-9 victory over the Bearcats, their first win over Cincinnati since 2010.
“I’m proud of the team, specifically the seniors, having had a rough go of it against this team for their time here,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said. “So for them to play that way, for those seniors to play the way they did this afternoon is really special.”
UConn (3-3, 1-2 the American) started slow once again, once again going scoreless in the first quarter. The Huskies have still not scored in the first quarter this season, and have not scored points in the first quarter of a regular season game since their win over Houston on Nov. 21, 2015.
Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3 the American) wasn’t any better in the opening period, but opened up scoring with three field goals from Josh Pasley in the second quarter to jump out to a 9-0 lead.
Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs squandered the Huskies’ initial touchdown chance with just over a minute left in the first half after Cincinnati’s Linden Stephens picked off a pass intended for Brian Lemelle.
Five Cincinnati plays later, safety Obi Melifonwu picked off Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore for his first interception of the season.
“I just played high, read the quarterback, broke on the ball, he overthrew it and I was right there to make the play,” Melifonwu said of his interception.
Shirreffs wasted no time getting redemption, hitting Tyraiq Beals for a 59-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds left in the half to make it 9-7 Cincinnati.
“That play was huge,” Shirreffs said of Beals’ touchdown. “Beals came in and made a huge play and really changed the momentum of the game.”
UConn would tack on another score midway through the third quarter to go up 14-9 as Shirreffs connected with Noel Thomas for 26-yard score for Thomas’ third touchdown of the season. Thomas finished the day with another stellar performance, hauling in nine passes for 108 yards, and Shirreffs totaled 224 yards on 18-for-33 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and added 61 yards on the ground.
Junior running back Arkeel Newsome turned in UConn’s best individual performance of the day, racking up 117 yards on 14 carries in just three quarters after being suspended for the first quarter due to a violation of team rules.
“He had a late Friday, little violation of how we do our business,” Diaco said of Newsome. “Arkeel is an electric player…We just have to keep giving him the ball.”
Newsome’s biggest run of the day came on a 67-yard run to bring the Huskies to the Cincinnati 22-yard line. Kicker Bobby Puyol would capitalize on Newsome’s run with a 30-yard field goal to give UConn a 17-9 lead, their largest of the season. Puyol would end up sealing the Huskies’ win with a 23-yard field goal with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter, ending a 16-play, 74-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock and making it a two-possession game.
An important factor in the win over the Bearcats was the play of UConn’s defense. The Huskies dominated the ground game, holding a Cincinnati rushing attack that averaged over 149 yards per game to just two. The two rushing yards were least the Huskies have given up since holding Rutgers to -9 rushing yards in 2011. The two rushing yards are the seventh-lowest total allowed by UConn in program history.
“I think the guys were ready to be physical with their hands and tackle well,” Diaco said. “They could get down into those runs.”