The Huskies had 11 true and redshirt freshman start on offense and defense during their home opener against No.21 UCF on Thursday night. A collegiate debut against the “defending national champions” and the nation’s highest scoring offense last year might have been the tallest task for a group of first-years since Harry, Ron and Hermoine took down that mountain troll.
The Huskies started the 2018 season with the football after UCF deferred possession. A 14-yard throw and a 26-pick-up on a tuck and run by quarterback Dave Pindell had the offense in high gear. All momentum was lost after redshirt freshman Zavier Scott fumbled the ball on his first collegiate carry.
Head coach Randy Edsall let sophomore Kevin Mensah take the majority of snaps the rest of the night.
However, the players on the sideline didn’t let themselves get too down after the play.
“We knew we were just going to comeback,” said linebacker Omar Fortt. “That always happens and you just cant be hurt by that.”
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton has a talented receiving corps around him but UConn’s Keyshawn Paul was his favorite target on Thursday night. The freshman cornerback was targeted early and often.
It looked like UCF found the endzone early after wide receiver Gabriel Davis hauled in a juggling catch over Paul’s back nearly four minutes into the game. The call was overturned after review but might as well have been a preview of the rest of the game.
After a 2-yard run from Adrian Killins gave the Knights a 7-0 lead and stout showing by the UCF defense forced a three-and-out, Milton was gunning for Paul once again. Paul shadowed receiver Tre Nixon down the visitors sideline but made a bad adjustment on the ball in the endzone. Nixon was able to create space and easily hauled in the ball to give the Knights a 14-0 lead with nine minutes remaining in the first quarter.
After Nixon’s 45-yard catch midway through the second quarter brought the Knight’s into the redzone, Paul found himself lined up across from Gabriel Davis. This time, Davis’ made sure his catch counted. The receiver used a quick move off the line to beat Paul on a slant to put UCF up 21-3.
After starting the third quarter with an early pass interference penalty, Edsall pulled Paul in favor of another true freshman: Ryan Carroll.
While Carroll was not under fire as much as Paul was, it was probably still not how he wanted his debut to go. With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Milton chose once again to target the newbie. Carroll took over Paul’s coverage of Tre Nixon but the result was the same. Nixon beat Carroll to the ball on an 11-yard route, extending UCF’s lead to a commanding 42-10.
Head coach Randy Edsall implied after the game that the nerves and bright lights might have gotten to his younger players.
“I thought we had some young men play a little bit tentative for their first time and just didn’t let it go,” Edsall said. “Those are things we’ll learn from. We’ll get better.”
The Knights stayed in a fast-paced offense for the rest of the game and added a couple touchdowns just for good measure.
UCF pulled Milton at the beginning of the fourth quarter but his 346 total yards and 5 touchdowns were worth two game of work.
His replacement, Darriel Mack Jr, made sure he had a highlight too. The redshirt freshman busted open a 70-yard touchdown run run five minutes into the fourth quarter, putting a cherry on the top of the 56-17 victory.
UConn quarterback Dave Pindell was a bright spot. Despite a costly interception in the waning moments of the second half, the senior had several nice throws and worked some magic with his legs, racking up 157 rushing yards. He finished the game with 266 passing yards and two touchdowns; one through the air and the other on the ground.
Despite the throttling, Edsall has confidence in his team and especially his newcomers that they will be able to improve moving forward.
“I don’t have any doubt in these guys. They’ll bounce back,” Edsall said. “Now they understand how hard it is. Some of them, they got all excited. ‘Oh I’m playing college football and I’m a starter.’ Now they go out tonight and they’re playing a top 20 team.”
The Huskies return to action next week against Boise State.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.