Facing an FCS school in Holy Cross was presumed to be an easy win for the new look UConn Huskies football program. Although the team looked much less than spectacular throughout the game, the Huskies overcame first half adversity with a little help from a certain former starting quarterback and defeated the Crusaders 27-20 in their season opener Thursday night at Rentschler Field.
“We had plenty of adversity tonight,” head coach Randy Edsall said. “Just seeing how they handled that and worked their way through it and coming away with a win, I’m really proud of them from that standpoint.”
Electing to receive the ball after the coin toss, UConn’s no-huddle offense came out of the gates fast but were back on the sidelines even faster, with a three-and-out drive in just under one minute.
With 8:40 remaining in the first quarter, Huskies’ key defensive lineman, Foley Fatukasi, was disqualified from the remainder of the game for targeting after a long discussion amongst the referees. The Crusaders proceeded to take advantage of Fatukasi’s ejection, eventually scoring on a 25-yard field goal on a long drive facilitated by fifth-year senior quarterback Peter Pujals.
On the very next possession, UConn ended one of the worst offensive stretches of all time, with regard to scoring a touchdown in the first quarter. A ten-play, 71-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard run by Nate Hopkins into the end zone was the first touchdown the Huskies had scored in the first quarter since December 26, 2015 against Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. And they managed to do it with just 10 seconds left in the quarter for a 7-3 lead heading into the second.
Later, UConn quarterback David Pindell fumbled the ball on an 11-yard rush and Pujals put Holy Cross back on top 10-7 with a perfect pass to Blaise Bell on the slant just five minutes into the second quarter, moments after converting a fourth down to keep the drive alive and ultimately score a field goal.
Kick returner Jordan Swann made matters worse for the Huskies by fumbling on the ensuing kickoff and giving Pujals a short field to work with, yet again. The Holy Cross offense made quick work of their fantastic field position and scored another touchdown to make it 20-7 before the half.
Although Fatukasi had been ejected in the first quarter, he was well aware of his mistake and how he almost cost his team in the season-opening game. Nevertheless, he stepped up when the team needed it most. At halftime, he stood up and gave a powerful speech that rallied the team together, fueling the second half comeback.
“He could’ve come in there and hung his head and not say anything and not do anything,” Edsall said. “But he was the guy at halftime that stood up and sent the message to those guys. He said, ‘Hey, everybody get out there. There’s nothing more to be said, let’s go.’”
The Crusaders’ offense moved the ball down the field to start the second half, but kicker A.J. Wells missed a 48-yard field goal keeping the Huskies’ deficit within two touchdowns. Still, UConn had no answer to Holy Cross’ defensive scheme that kept them under wraps for much of the night.
Backup quarterback Bryant Shirreffs entered the game for Pindell late in the third quarter and almost instantly, the Huskies’ offense got into a groove. With Shirreffs under center, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee made an effort to get the ball in Hopkins’ hands and the redshirt freshman running back made the most of it.
First, Hopkins got around the edge and burst inside the Crusaders’ 10-yard line on a long gain. Hopkins would score on the very next play on a draw handoff from Shirreffs, bringing UConn within six points just before the end of the third quarter.
On their very next possession, Shirreffs fueled another Huskies’ drive, delivering a nice pass to Aaron McLean down the seam before hitting Hergy Mayala on a back shoulder for a third down conversion. Later, Shirreffs would hit Mayala again for an 11-yard back shoulder touchdown to put UConn back on top 21-20 after the extra point with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game.
Shirreffs’ entry in the game was critical to the Huskies’ success Thursday night. Although Pindell had a decent game in his own right, the offense went on a roll the moment the former starter stepped into the game. After the game, Shirreffs suggested he would be ready at any moment to come in and help his team win.
“It’s tough. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a situation like that before,” Shirreffs said of his role as a backup entering the game. “But in my mind, I was starting and I just prepared like I was going to play the whole game so when it was my turn I was prepared.”
The Huskies would later capitalize on a Holy Cross turnover-on-downs, as Shirreffs led the offense into the red zone once more before Hopkins powered his way in for his third touchdown in his debut game, giving UConn a 27-20 lead after a failed extra point.
Hopkins was electric with the ball on the night and may have made his case for the lead back role ahead of incumbent Arkeel Newsome. Nonetheless, Hopkins was still more focused on winning the game in his debut rather than personal accolades.
“I’m more excited that we won, more importantly,” Hopkins said. “I got touchdowns, but more importantly we won.”
The defense carried the team from there and held the Crusaders scoreless for the entire second half as the Huskies survived for the seven-point win. But a win is a win and for now UConn football is undefeated.
“Anytime you win, it’s a great feeling,” Shirreffs said. “And I’m tired of losing.”