EAST HARTFORD – Two weeks after the UConn football surrendered a program-high 70 points to Memphis, they delivered an impressive turnaround in front of 24,814 fans on Homecoming Day at Rentschler Field.
The Huskies’ defense largely neutralized the explosive Tulsa rushing attack for three quarters, before barely surviving a furious fourth quarter comeback to earn a 20-14 victory and improve to 3-4 (2-3 The American) in 2017.
“Good to win. Great win for us,” UConn head coach Randy Edsall. “We’re going to enjoy it, but also, there’s some things that took place in that game that we’re going to be able to correct and get better, because we did have opportunities to put them away and we just didn’t take advantage of that. And we have to figure out what happened in the last five minutes.”
Tulsa roared back down 20-0 in the final quarter for two touchdowns and a last-gasp drive that began on their own 12-yard line with 46 seconds left and no timeouts. Tulsa QB Luke Skipper’s desperation heave with one second left from the UConn 9-yard line was batted down to save the victory.
“You just hope you can make a play, because the kids expended so much energy to try to get a win, and you don’t want to see it come down to that situation there at the end of the game,” Edsall said. “You’re dying for them, because they’re the ones out there playing.”
Despite the two offenses’ reputations for scoring points, Saturday’s game began as a showcase for the defenses. The first five drives ended in punts, with Tulsa struggling against UConn’s last place pass defense and UConn struggling against Tulsa’s last place run defense.
The Huskies got the Homecoming crowd up late in the quarter with the game’s first big play, as quarterback Bryant Shirreffs executed a nice run fake and floated a pass into the arms of a wide open Arkeel Newsome, who took off for 51 yards into the Tulsa red zone. UConn failed to punch it in, settling for a 35-yard field goal after an unusual unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on Edsall.
Newsome suffered an injury later in the half, sending UConn’s best offensive weapon to the sideline for the remainder of the game.
Tulsa made its first significant venture into UConn territory early in the second quarter, but freshman defensive back Jordan Swann stepped in front of a Luke Skipper pass for an interception in the end zone.
UConn drove to the Tulsa 27-yard line later in the quarter, but 20 yards of penalties pushed them far out of field goal range and eventually forced a punt from Brett Graham, who booted four in the first half.
The Golden Hurricane had a chance to get on the board with 45 seconds left on the half, but kicker Redford Jones pushed a 44-yard field goal wide right to send UConn into the break up 3-0. Saturday’s game was the first time the Huskies held an opponent scoreless at the half since Nov. 24, 2012, against Louisville.
“The defensive staff, they just go in the room and shut the door,” Edsall said. “Just believe in whatwe do, and the kids believed, and they started and believing and seeing success, and that helps you build your confidence [defensively].”
UConn kicked off the second half with a 12-play, 79-yard drive for the game’s first touchdown, a one-yard run from Nate Hopkins to go up 10-0. The key play on the drive was a 33-yard catch-and-run for Quayvon Skanes on third down.
After another quick stop by the defense, UConn struck again, working a flea flicker to perfection for an 80-yard touchdown catch by Hergy Mayala. Mayala was an important part of the Huskies’ pass attack Saturday, catching four passes for 131 yards.
“We hit [the flea flicker] in the spring, and coach said he was going to call it looking for the same result, and we got it. It was great,” Mayala said.
Billy Crocker’s defense kicked the pass rush into high gear on Tulsa’s next drive, sacking Skipper on back-to-back plays, with Cole Ornsby and Foley Fatukasi bringing him down. After Tulsa got the ball back following a UConn punt, they swiftly moved into UConn territory before another Fatukasi sack pushed them out of field goal range and set up a conversion attempt on 4th-and-18. Luke Carrezola capped the sequence with a diving sack, the Huskies’ fifth of the game.
“It’s awesome to see [Cole, Foley and Luke] have success because it’s their last ride. I feel like that was something that carried us, gave us confidence, gave us momentum,” defensive back Brayden Brown said of the sequence.
It was the peak of the afternoon for the UConn defense, which delivered, through three-and-a-half quarters, a much better performance than that 70-point dud against Memphis.
“More attention to detail in practice, just going 100 percent every play in practice,” linebacker Junior Joseph said, explaining the defensive turnaround. “When practice is moving fast, and it’s hard, it comes to the game. Guys are starting to buy into it and things are clicking.”
Tulsa lurched to life afterward. The UConn pass rush slowed to a halt, allowing touchdown drives of 75 yards and 77 yards, respectively, for the Golden Hurricane to pull within six points with 2:16 left on the clock. They failed to recover the onside kick, but got the ball with 51 seconds left in search of a miracle.
A wild series of plays ensued, including a 50-yard completion that put Tulsa on the UConn 9-yard line with one second left on the clock. Skipper rushed his offense up to the line, got the snap off and bought some time before heaving the ball into the end zone to a seemingly open receiver.
Joseph was the hero, averting disaster by batting down the ball to seal a game he previously left with an injury.
“It was my guy, the quarterback started scrambling, so I stayed with him,” Joseph said. “I just saw the ball and made a play on it.”