There were a pair of returns to Rentschler Field on Saturday during UConn’s 62-50 loss to SMU. One was significantly more welcome than the other.
First, linebacker Eli Thomas was able to be on the sidelines for the first time since suffering a stroke in mid-October. Thomas wore his usual No. 22 over his street clothes and cheered his teammates on from outside the hash marks.
Thomas’ return was a surprise until Friday night when the players met for a team dinner. Outside of head coach Randy Edsall, no one knew Thomas was going to be back at UConn this weekend. The redshirt junior had been recovering back in his hometown. The first player Thomas let know of his return was the same one that had been honoring him by wearing his number in recent weeks.
“He Facetimed me and I saw his room in the background so I just ran over to his room,” said linebacker Santana Sterling. “It was good to have him here.”
It was a heartwarming moment in a bleak season.
“He’s still got a long way to go but it shows much UConn means to him and how much football and his teammates mean to come down here,” said Edsall.
The second return was not as uplifting.
Have you ever ran into a former significant other, seen them happy in a new relationship and felt woefully inadequate and maybe jealous of how better off they were after the split than yourself?
It’s a feeling UConn football might relate to.
During Saturday’s loss, UConn had to combat the playbook of Rhett Lashlee, their offensive coordinator from a year ago. Lashlee also ran the offense at Auburn before taking a $250,000 pay cut to join Edsall’s staff in 2017. The move lasted a whole year before Lashlee left Connecticut to take the same position at SMU.
With SMU, Lashlee has a pair of dangerous receivers at his fingertips in junior James Proche and sophomore Reggie Roberson Jr. The two receivers have combined for 1,530 yards on the season, including 152 yards on Saturday.
It was clear from the opening drive on Saturday that SMU was going to press the issue offensively. The Mustangs cruised down the field with SMU quarterback Ben Hicks spreading the ball all over the field. After UConn’s TJ Gardner made a key stop on third down on the Huskies’ own 29-yard line, Lashlee elected to keep his offense on the field. It was a gamble that was rewarded with a six-yard Reggie Roberson pickup for the first down. The Mustangs eventually finished the drive with a 32-yard field goal.
SMU kept their foot on the UConn defense’s throat for the rest of the game. When players like Ke’Mon Freeman weren’t shaking off five tackles on their way to the endzone, the Mustangs were able to reach deep into their playbook for some inspiration.
Lashlee and his offense used a variety of trick plays to keep the Huskies on their toes and helped them score on their first five possessions.
Any Patriots fans in the building on Saturday would have noticed a familiar play SMU ran to give themselves a 24-7 lead at the start of the second quarter.
In a passable imitation of Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII, wide receiver Tyler Page received the ball on an end around and got a rare opportunity to show off his arm strength. Page found an open Ryan Becker in the corner of the endzone for six.
Three minutes later on the first play of a new drive, the Mustangs broke out the flea flicker. After a handoff to his running back, Hicks received the ball back and found Proche, who made a spectacular one-handed catch, for a massive 46-yard gash into UConn’s redzone.
Despite the Mustang’s aggressiveness on fourth down and willingness to reach into their bag of tricks, Edsall doesn’t think it was part of any message on Lashlee’s part.
“If the guys [UConn’s defense] are doing their jobs then it’s no gain. We’ve seen all that stuff here last year,” said Edsall. “They weren’t trick plays, it was guys not doing their job.”
The Huskies’ offense, maybe feeling like they had to flex their own creative muscles to keep pace, were not afraid to run a few trick plays themselves.
In the closing minutes of the first half, the Huskies used a formation that saw almost the entirety of their offensive line shift out to the left. Quarterback David Pindell received the snap and picked up the first down on a two-yard run.
The Huskies also attempted a flea flicker of their own. Ultimately, the ground game ended up being the Huskies’ greatest asset. Pindell racked up 181 yards rushing; putting him over 1,000 rushing yards on the season and running back Kevin Mensah had his best collegiate game with a career-high 184 rushing yards.
“We tried to give them a couple things they hadn’t seen before, trying to utilize David’s ability,” Edsall said. “We tried to make it a shootout and outscore them but we weren’t able to do that.”
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.