The Huskies might have clinched their 56-49 win on Saturday with a crucial defensive play on the game’s final down, but it was a game defined by offense.
Like they had for most of game, the Rams were driving with under a minute left in regulation. A completion down the left sideline to wide receiver Aaron Parker on fourth and 16 stopped the clock with 26 seconds left on UConn’s 33-yardline.
Receiver Isaiah Coulter brought the Rams even closer with a 12-yard pickup three plays later. With five seconds left on the clock and 16 yards away from a potential game-tying score, URI quarterback JaJuan Lawson dropped back, looking for his fifth passing touchdown of the day.
Eli Thomas got there first. UConn’s junior linebacker came off the edge at and found himself with an unimpeded path to Lawson. Thomas slammed into Lawson’s blindside at Mach speed, the final knockout punch in a game of nothing but haymaking blows.
“[Defensive end] James Atkins did a real good job all game opening things up for me,” said Thomas. “The offense did a really good job today. As a defense we had to step [up] and we did at the end and that’s all that matters.”
Such a defensive stand playing a crucial role in the game would have been hard to imagine in the first half.
The Huskies scored on the game’s opening possession courtesy of a 17-yard run to pay dirt by quarterback David Pindell. However, URI wasted no time responding. A methodical three-minute drive ended with Lawson finding Marven Beauvais in the right corner of the end zone. Freshman Ryan Carroll was technically there in coverage, but just like most of the game, the defense was practically invisible.
UConn wrestled their lead right back on the next possession. An 11-yard run from running back Kevin Mensah ensured a 14-7 lead after the games’ first 15 minutes.
Just when it was starting to feel like the outcome of the game might depend on who had the ball last, freshman defensive back Oneil Robinson made a diving interception to give UConn the ball back at midfield.
On the ensuing drive, facing fourth and two, UConn originally came out in field goal formation but head coach Randy Edsall called timeout before the snap. The Huskies’ offense came back out on the field. It ended up a wise decision as UConn converted the first down and found the endzone on a five-yard touchdown pass to Hergy Mayala. Edsall’s decision to try his luck on fourth down was a clue that even the head coaches felt like they had to maximize scoring chances.
“I used the analytics but also my gut and my instincts,” said Edsall. “I felt this was going to be a game where I couldn’t sit there and settle for field goals.”
It didn’t take URI long to cut into the deficit. Just two minutes and five seconds after Mayala’s touchdown, Lawson fired a bullet pass in between a couple UConn defenders straight into Aaron Parker’s hands for six points.
Maybe URI’s defense was still trying to catch their breath because it took Pindell and the UConn offense even less time to respond with another touchdown of their own.
Just 45 seconds after URI’s score, receiver Heron Maurisseau got behind the Rams’ defense and Pindell found him open in space for the 74-yard touchdown hook-up.
The game had developed into a fast-paced firefight by this point, but there was still some room for trickery. Lawson cut UConn’s lead to 28-21 after a perfectly executed fake handoff. With a defender wrapping up the empty-handed running back on the ground, Lawson found an open hole and scampered for 37 yards worth seven points.
Lawson eventually contributed another touchdown, this time with his arm, but two more touchdown passes from the arm of the Pindell gave UConn a 42-28 lead going into halftime.
Perhaps both head coaches found their defenses hiding in the locker room at halftime because for the first time all game they were noticeable in the second half.
In a stunning scoring drought, both teams went scoreless for the first six minutes of the third quarter. Lawson provided the first points of the second half at the 8:30 mark on a run the quarterback kept himself.
UConn’s offense was still trying to recapture their first-half groove. Next possession, Pindell fired a pass high that grazed Mayala’s finger tips but ended up in the grasp of URI cornerback Rashod Dickerson. The interception gave the Rams the ball at UConn’s 34-yard line. Lawson made good use of UConn’s costly mistake, threading the needle between a pair of blue jerseys and into Tyler Burke’s hands to tie the game at 42-42.
Pindell gave UConn a 49-42 lead on a six-yard run on the next possession and a stretch of fruitless drives by both teams made that the score going into the final minutes of the game.
URI running back Naim Jones tied the game on a short run with 3:13 remaining in regulation.
With URI holding all of their timeouts, UConn put precedence on scoring rather than chewing clock. Finally, Kevin Mensah sprung free on a 22-yardrun to give UConn a 56-49 lead with 55 seconds remaining.
The Rams drove all the way down the field but Eli Thomas’ buzzer-beater sack finally put the Rams to bed and gave UConn their first win of the season.
While Edsall acknowledges that the team, and the program as a whole, is still going through growing pains, he was proud of the way his team played on Saturday.
“They’re going to go and lay it on the line,” said Edsall. “Is it always pretty? No. The bottom line is that we won the game. That’s all I care about.”
After a down week against Boise State, Pindell returned to form. The dual threat quarterback contributed 445 total yards of offense on the ground and through the air, the third most in UConn history. Mensah added 146 yards of his own. All together, UConn’s 773 total yards of offense were the sixth-most in program history.
“We clicked today,” said Pindell. “I think we found our mistakes from the first two games; taking care of the ball and scoring when we got to the redzone and that’s what we tried to focus on today.”
UConn should enter their Week 4 matchup against Syracuse with a little more pep in their step with a win under their belt and a historic offensive performance in the rearview.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.