Football: Huskies lose season opener despite valiant effort against Utah State 

UConn loses to Middle Tennessee 44-13 making their record 1-8 on October 22nd, 2021. Uconn will next play Clemson November 13th, 2021 at Clemson. Photo by Jordan Arnold/Daily Campus.

The average fan would look at the 31-20 loss the UConn football team suffered against Utah State University and conclude that the Aggies controlled most of the game. The final score does not give the Huskies’ efforts, especially in the first quarter, its due diligence. 

The Huskies wasted no time showing they were a completely different team. After Utah State punted to begin the season, UConn marched 79 yards down the field for a touchdown behind a 52-yard run from running back Nathan Carter and capped the drive with a goal-line rush from starting quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson. 

Utah State responded with a drive into Husky territory, but Jackson Mitchell ripped the ball out of Pailate Makakona’s hands and halted the Aggies’ momentum. On the ensuing drive, Roberson went down with a knee injury on a running play, pushing Zion Turner into action. Three plays later, he threw an interception after facing immense pressure from Utah State’s defense. 

Just like the Huskies, Utah State did not capitalize on the turnover and punted the football. Behind two more rushing plays over 20 yards, one from Carter and another from quarterback Cale Millen, the Huskies re-entered the red zone. Turner finished off the drive with some flair, firing a dart to his left and finding Keelan Marion in the end zone for the Huskies’ second touchdown of the game. Marion left the game with a shoulder injury on the play, but up 14-0, UConn had momentum. 

Just when the team looked poised to take over the game, everything came crashing down. Carter burst out into a 19-yard rush on the Huskies’ first drive of the second quarter but fumbled the ball and gave the Aggies a chance at redemption following an errant throw that forced a turnover on downs. The Aggies took full advantage, scoring on four out of their next five drives (three touchdowns and a field goal), exhausting the Husky defense into missing tackles and ending the half up 24-14. 

After a defensive-minded third quarter with punts galore, the Huskies shrunk the deficit in the fourth behind back-to-back drives ending in field goals. The second drive began after a Utah State completion turned into a fumble following a sliding tackle from Tre Wortham and Chris Shearin picked up the loose ball.  

The lead cut down to four, Utah State grabbed insurance points after a defensive pass interference penalty assisted the Aggies as they rolled into the endzone. An interception by Ike Larsen, the first of his career, in Utah State territory iced the game as the Aggies ran out the clock and handed the Huskies their first loss of the season. This was not the result that UConn’s coaching staff was looking for. 

“We hate to lose,” Head Coach Jim Mora said after the game. “We did not come here to lose.” 

The 0-1 start may be the same, but compared to last year’s opener against the Fresno State University Bulldogs — one that ended in a 45-0 blowout loss — the Huskies had a lot more positives following the opener. 

Carter had the best performance of his career, rushing for 190 yards on 20 carries. This included first-quarter rushes of 52 and 44 yards on separate drives exceeding UConn’s longest-rushing play from last season. Although he never found paydirt, he was undoubtedly the best player on the field. 

“He’s a tough kid,” Mora explained. “Some of the plays he made today …it is what he is capable of.” 

Carter did not make those plays on his own as his frontline teammates provided pathways for him to run without committing a holding penalty. 

“Everything starts with the [offensive] line,” Carter remarked. “They were able to make my job easier.” 

Roberson, the redshirt sophomore out of Penn State University, started the regular-season opener before Turner took over after Roberson went down. The final numbers on Turner are deceiving. He went 12-31 for 109 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, but that does not tell the whole story. The first interception came on his first career pass, but he kept his composure by throwing a touchdown pass on his second attempt. Despite not earning his first career win, Turner gave the team a lot to like given the situation he ended up in. 

“I did not see him hesitate at all,” Mora said. “It was very evident in his demeanor why he has always been a winner in his career.”  

Since the game’s conclusion, Mora has commented that Roberson potentially tore his ACL and Marion suffered a broken collarbone. While Roberson is most likely out for the season, Mora hopes that Marion can return to the field in 2022. Even with two starters going down, the offense shined with 364 yards gained on the ground and in the air. 

UConn loses to Middle Tennessee 44-13 making their record 1-8 on October 22nd, 2021. Uconn will next play Clemson November 13th, 2021 at Clemson. Photo by Jordan Arnold/Daily Campus.

The defense, running without their own coordinator as Lou Spanos left the team for personal reasons, held their own. Jackson Mitchell, a Dick Butkus Award watch list member, added 16 tackles (tying a career high) and a sack on top of the fumble recovery. Ian Swenson secured 12 tackles, also tying his career high. Despite a strong day highlighted by two fumble recoveries, a sack and 31 more tackles than the Aggies, Utah State had one extra takeaway that proved to be the difference. 

“When you lose the turnover battle on the road … those things come back to get you,” Mora noted. 

The special teams were the Huskies’ secret weapon. George Caratan, a University of Arkansas transfer, averaged 41 yards on his six punts, including one that landed around the one-yard line in the third. 

Sophomore Noe Ruelas became the primary kicker with Joe McFadden out for the year due to a torn ACL. Ruelas’ two field goals in the fourth helped UConn trim into the Aggie lead and make it a one-possession game. His second kick, a 54-yard laser with yards to spare, was the longest field goal in UConn’s FBS tenure and the first 50-yard kick since 2018. 

“Since Joe [McFadden] went down, he’s been dependable,” Mora remarked. “I think he is an excellent kicker.” 

For two-and-a-half quarters, UConn was the better team. The results may show that the Aggies won the game, but Mora and most of Husky Nation see Saturday’s game as a win for the program. 

“I saw things [Saturday] out of this group that lead to encouragement,” Mora explained. “I am encouraged by the way they competed.” 

Regardless of the 542 total yards allowed, the second quarter and the offensive struggles after the first, this is a completely different team than UConn put on the field in years past. 

“This will be a program that competes until the bitter end, and it will be a program that people are proud of,” Mora stated.  

The Huskies look for their first win under Mora when they play their home opener against the Central Connecticut State University Blue Devils on Saturday, September 3 at 12 p.m. on The CW Network.  

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