A short 391 days before the UConn Huskies football team suited up to take on UMass in “The U Game” this past Friday, the pride of Connecticut was in a completely different place. I’m not talking about the 55 miles up I-91 where the game happened. I’m talking about how they could only watch as the Minutemen faithfully stormed the field after securing a 27-13, demoralizing win. A lot has changed since then.
Not only have both teams switched head coaches, the feeling around UConn has taken a complete 180. For the first time since 2015, the Huskies have five wins and have put themselves in prime position to make a bowl game. It’s been going on all season, but Friday’s 27-10 win was a real landmark of how far they’ve come.
“It was a good win,” Coach Jim Mora said. “It was ugly at times. We didn’t play up to our standards in the first half at all. We’re happy but we’re not satisfied. At halftime we talked about playing with more energy. We did that on defense and offense. That’s the way we have to play.”
On the first drive of the game, UMass made the same errors that it feels like most of UConn’s recent opponents have made. They started off driving and made it to the Husky 30. Then, a backwards pass was nonchalantly dropped by the Minutemen receiver, as if it was a forward pass. As he walked away in frustration, star linebacker Jackson Mitchell grabbed the live ball and ran it all the way back to the UMass 20. UConn has perpetually benefitted from teams shooting themselves in the foot and it didn’t stop there.
Three rushes by freshman Victor Rosa got the Huskies to the 14 yard line, bringing kicker Noe Ruelas out to try a chip shot. The 31 yarder went wide, and UMass got the ball looking to drive. They did just that, getting just three yards away from the end zone. The Huskies stayed strong on defense though, forcing a field goal.
Devontae Houston decided it was time to put his fingerprints on the game. The running back who had missed the previous two games with injury took his first play back 75 yards to the house for the monster touchdown.
“Once I saw that outlet, I knew I had to hit it,” Houston noted. “I was gone. Every time I touch the ball I’m trying to be explosive.”
UMass came right back and missed a 43 yard field goal, giving UConn the ball back at their own 43 to get the second quarter started. A pair of 11 yard plays by Aaron Turner and Kevens Clercius gave the Huskies great positioning deep into the red zone. After a short run by Rosa, quarterback Zion Turner missed a few throws thanks to some nice pressure by the Minutemen. As a result, Ruelas helped extend the lead to seven with an easy kick through the uprights.
UMass got the ball back and had a few short yardage plays. On the fifth on the drive, wide receiver Cameron Sullivan-Brown had defensive back Malcolm Bell lost, making a wide open catch for a 53 yard score to tie things up.
The teams traded punts and UConn started their drive in Minutemen territory. Turner hit freshman tight end Justin Joly for a 25 yard completion, but that was the only significant play of the drive. Once again, the Huskies had to settle for three with the Ruelas kick, taking them into the half with a 13-10 lead that likely should have been much larger.
“It was a bit of frustration,” linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle said of the first half effort. “We channeled it. This is our house.”
Mitchell was the key voice that helped get the Huskies back on track.
“Jackson [Mitchell] is one of the quieter guys on the team,” Mora noted. “The way he leads, the example he sets, when he opens his mouth and says this is some BS, the team listens.”
And listen they did. Even though there were four straight punts to start the half, UConn came out with energy on their third drive. They were bolstered by a poor UMass punt, once again starting in Minutemen territory. Rosa and running back Robert Burns each got decent yardage on runs, but it was Rosa who punched it in for six.
UConn forced the turnover on downs and got right back to work at its own 26. A pass interference call got UConn near midfield and a series of nice, medium yardage plays got the Huskies further down the field. Rosa burst out for a 26 yard gain and finished the job with another 12 yard carry right into the endzone. UMass had no answer, effectively ending the game with a 27-10 win for the Huskies.
With this victory, UConn has surpassed expectations considerably in just year one of the Mora Era. Even being within reaching distance of a 13th game means something special.
“We have big dreams here to make a bowl game,” Rosa said. “Making a change is one of the big reasons I came here.”
Rosa and the Huskies will have their chance to do just that this Saturday against No. 19 Liberty back at home for Senior Night. Although it’ll be an uphill battle, they’ve grown a lot this year and have the firepower to get it done.