The taste of losing is easier to manage when you’re used to it. For the first time in a long time, UConn football fans managed to put aside their chronic hopelessness after the Huskies managed a 3-4 record, already tripling their win total from last year. Saturday, UConn looked like it was going to win–until it didn’t. And all of a sudden, after a two game win streak, losing again feels exactly as it should–like a punch in the stomach.
Ball State started the game out right around half field, but turned it over on downs after managing just one first down. Two nice runs from running back Robert Burns and quarterback Zion Turner later, the Huskies were in business and Cardinal territory. A bizarre play saw Zion Turner whip the ball short to wide receiver Aaron Turner. Aaron Turner bounced off a Ball State defender, stumbled a bit and then sprinted untouched into the end zone.
The teams traded punts, giving the Cardinals the ball at their own 27. Consecutive first down plays put them into UConn territory and a series of shorter attempts got them all the way to the goal line. UConn held strong for three downs, but ultimately, RB Carson Steele punched it in for his first score of the game to tie things up.
As has been the case for the past few games, the Husky offense didn’t let that deter them and marched right down the field. Aaron Turner ran the ball to get it almost to half field and a few solid runs by Burns and Rosa positioned UConn a short 39 yards away. Zion Turner sent the ball to an open Justin Joly and the freshman did the rest himself to get past the pylon to take the lead.
Ball State made another move down the field in an attempt to tie the game again, but the resilient Husky defense kept the Cardinals to just a field goal. A pair of punts later gave UConn the ball at its own 36. Zion Turner made a few impressive plays through the air and on the ground to get the Huskies onto the other side of the field before Burns and Rosa ripped off consecutive big runs. At the one yard line, Burns hopped over the pile and gave his squad a commanding 21-10 lead going into the half.
Turner started out the half with an unfortunate tipped-ball interception that took some of the air out of the offense at the wrong time. Ten plays later, the Husky defense once again showed their improvement, holding Ball State to just three points.
Three punts later, Ball State had the pigskin and looked to tie things up as the third quarter wound down. Instead, quarterback John Paddock threw a pick right into the hands of Malik Dixon-Williams, but the Huskies couldn’t do anything with it, kicking the ball right back after three plays.
The theme of the matchup was UConn’s bend-don’t-break defense that stayed together after a 13 play Ball State drive that took the Cardinals to the 30 as the game clock ticked under 10 minutes remaining. The home team lined up for the field goal, but a well-timed jump allowed Malcolm Bell to not just block, but swat the kick, giving UConn the ball back.
Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, The Huskies totaled -17 yards on the ensuing drive. On third and 27, Rosa took the handoff, but couldn’t hang on after a hit, fumbling the ball and giving Ball State possession just outside of the red zone.
Steele took just three plays to get all 24 yards himself and the touchdown, but a failed pass play kept UConn up by a pair. A long, methodical drive would have iced things for the Huskies, but a mere two minutes after they received it, they kicked the ball right back.
With a chance to win the game, Ball State and Steele took the field at their own 41. Steele ran for 47 of the 59 possible yards, getting into the end zone for a third time to give the Cardinals the four point lead. Turner and the Husky offense couldn’t manage another first down, giving Ball State the win, 25-21.
It’s a painful game, but looking at things from a bigger picture lens, UConn football is ahead of schedule. They’re already over Vegas 2.5 over/under and they’re back to playing tight games. Yes, getting to a bowl is looking like it’s going to be near-impossible this year, but that was never the plan this early. If you told a rational UConn fan that they’d get four wins this year, that fan would be over the moon. There’s a lot to like about the way the team is coming together and it’s important not to lose sight of that in the hands of an excruciating loss. They now have two weeks to refresh and regroup before they host Boston College. UConn football may not be back just yet, but the excitement is, which is more than anyone around the program could ask for this early.