EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – The UConn football team, a program that went 1-11 just last year, is bowl eligible.
“It is fun to win your sixth game,” head coach Jim Mora said afterwards. “This is the most fun I have ever had coaching.”
With a hard-fought 36-33 victory over the No. 19 Liberty Flames, the Huskies can play in a bowl game for the first time since 2015, the last year that they won six games. This also marked the first time that UConn beat a ranked opponent since it conquered the then No. 19 Houston Cougars at home 20-17 seven seasons ago.
“We all believed in each other; our coaches put in so many hours to get [to] where we are,” Zion Turner explained. “All the hard work behind the scenes really showed up today.”
The Huskies’ hard work paid off from the beginning when Robert Burns returned the opening kickoff 38 yards. Capitalizing on the great field position, UConn got on the board as Victor Rosa weaved through a maze of defenders for a 16-yard touchdown run.
After surrendering three first downs in four plays, the Huskies’ defense held their ground, forcing the Flames to settle for a 38-yard field goal. The defense came up big on Liberty’s next drive as Eric Watts caused a strip sack. Jackson Mitchell came up with the recovery, his FBS-leading fifth of the year, and took it to the house for his first career touchdown.
As if UConn’s first quarter could not get any better, Chris Shearin picked off Johnathan Bennett on the following drive. The second quarter did not start out in the Huskies’ favor as they turned the ball over on a fumbled backwards pass and the Flames scored a touchdown in four plays as CJ Yarbrough leaped for the grab.
Three drives later, Burns burst out for a 58-yard run on the first play from scrimmage that almost became a 94-yard house call. Eight plays later and facing a goal-to-go situation, Burns became the Huskies’ second running back with a touchdown as he darted right into the endzone.
Momentum changed again toward the end of the half when, after the defense forced a three-and-out, Turner threw an interception to Liberty’s Ahmad Walker. The Flames capitalized on their second turnover as Malik Caper rushed into the endzone to make it a one-score game heading into the break.
Coming out of the break, Liberty needed less than three minutes to take their first lead of the afternoon, scoring a touchdown without taking any of their seven offensive snaps on third down. UConn responded by going three-and-out, which allowed the Flames to convert a 34-yard field goal on the ensuing drive.
Down six, the Huskies countered in dramatic fashion. To end the third quarter, UConn picked up two first downs as Liberty committed two 15-yard penalties, one of which was a targeting call. Rosa started the fourth quarter with a bang, sprinting 27 yards for his second touchdown of the game as the Huskies recaptured the lead.
But the Flames swiftly stole it. On the very first play from scrimmage, Demario Douglas dashed down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown, silencing a Rentschler Field crowd that had just gotten loud. Up five, Liberty decided to go for the two-point conversion, but Malcolm Bell broke up the pass in the endzone.
After UConn’s ensuing drive went almost nowhere, the Flames came back out on the field hoping to extend their lead, but the Husky defense stopped Liberty three straight times when they needed just a yard for a first down. On fourth down, Mitchell read the backwards pass play like a hawk, coming up with the tackle and forcing a turnover on downs. UConn had a golden opportunity to take its third lead of the day.
It looked as though the Huskies would go three and out in the Flames’ territory, but a QB rush from Turner on fourth down kept the drive alive. With a fresh set of downs, Turner immediately went for the deep ball and connected with Kevens Clercius in the endzone for the touchdown and the lead. The Huskies subsequently went for two and converted as Keelan Marion made the catch and essentially walked into the endzone.
Following two drives where the defenses came up big, the latter of which led to a UConn turnover on downs, the Flames had one last chance to avoid an upset, and they had 162 seconds to pull it off. All they needed was a field goal to tie and force overtime or a touchdown to escape with a win.
Not once but twice did Liberty find themselves in a game-deciding fourth down situation. The first time, it converted the down as Bennett found Jerome Jackson for the reception. The second time, Watts forced Bennett to throw an incomplete pass.
As the ball hit the ground, Mount Rentschler erupted. Once the clock hit zero, the celebrations oozed from the stands to the field. Although there were empty seats in the student section, fans sitting elsewhere joined the jubilee. The Huskies had done it; the program had significantly turned around in one season.
“That was a really fun game to be a part of,” Mora commented. “That was about as complete a team win, a team effort as we have had all year.”
Even the Flames, one week removed from their first-ever win against an SEC school and averaging the most sacks and tackles for a loss per game in the country, acknowledged the milestone that UConn reached.
“They wanted it today a little more than we did,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said after the game. “Congratulations to them on getting bowl eligible.”
The Huskies (6-5) wrap up their regular season at West Point, New York, next Saturday, Nov. 19, against the Army Black Knights. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.