Going into UConn Football’s opener against Utah State, a fringe top 25 team that received votes in the preseason AP Poll, the expectations were low. After all, the Huskies had won just four games in their past 36 attempts and underwent a coaching change that created massive roster turnover. Anything that looked better than last year’s 45-0 romp at Fresno State would be a welcome sign for fans.
Luckily for the Husky faithful, this was a much better beginning. They didn’t look perfect, nor like they yet belong in the top half of the FBS, but they were competitive.
This competitive start kicked off with a forced punt on the Aggies’ first drive, which for a team that recently lost their Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos to personal reasons, was phenomenal. As exciting as the defense was their first time out, the offense topped it. The first two plays for the Huskies were 13 and 52 yard rushes by Nate Carter, bringing UConn into the red zone within the first two minutes of the Jim Mora era. It took seven additional plays, but starting quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson bruised his way into the end zone for the score.
Those first two series were the most encouraging in recent history, finally giving fans something to cheer for. But they weren’t done there; the defense forced a fumble on the next possession and then a three-and-out on the one following. The Huskies grabbed a 14 point lead on a pass from freshman quarterback Zion Turner to Keelan Marion for the touchdown.
Although it was short lived, this first quarter made all of the effort that Mora has put into resuscitating the program feel real. Not only did they look competitive, they had a lead against a good team. Few expected them to keep the lead, but this does not look like a team that will beat Central Connecticut, FIU and UMass. They look like they can contend to win around four games, which would be a victory for the program.
Despite these positives, the Huskies faced some pretty major setbacks. They lost Roberson and Marion to injuries with the feeling around the program being that they could each be out for the year. Of course, losing your starting quarterback and best wide receiver is terrible, but the Huskies continued to compete. After surrendering 24 unanswered points in the second quarter, they battled hard. The third frame saw both teams scoreless, which demonstrated a lot of fight. After losing key pieces and suffering a demoralizing second period, past UConn teams would have rolled over and surrendered, giving up 24 more points — this team didn’t.
In the first two drives of the final quarter, kicker Noe Ruelas nailed a pair of field goals totaling 101 yards to bring the Huskies within just six with 10 minutes to go. Unfortunately though, Utah State strung together a 13 play, four minute drive that finished with a touchdown to ice the game.
It wasn’t pretty after the first quarter, but there was a real level of competitive spirit that hasn’t been around in a while. They scored four times, forced a pair of fumbles, and stopped Utah State on defense more times than not. The goal coming in was not to win, it was to prove to the state and the country that UConn doesn’t need to be the butt of college football jokes. And they did. This game was what was needed to encourage fans to come out next week and support the Huskies against Central Connecticut.
THE BOTTOM LINE–THE O-LINE
The thing from the game that stuck out the most was the offensive line, which also happens to be the most under-appreciated position. They consistently created holes for running back Nate Carter, allowing him to break free many times, most notably for 52 and 44 yards. As is with everything else from the game, they weren’t perfect, but there was improvement. The rest of the offense seemed less hurried than in past years, the importance of which cannot be overstated. If the offensive line can continue to be effective in future weeks, then we’ll see more of the positives discussed. They were a key reason for this week’s success and will be critical for UConn’s success in future weeks.