Heavily advertised as the biggest home game in the Jim Mora era, over 36,000 people packed the stands at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. That reported number marked the most fans in a season opener at the Rent since 2010, when the UConn football team battled the Texas Southern Tigers in front of over 37,000.
Playing in front of a near sellout crowd, Connecticut started their season with a bang but cracked under the NC State Wolfpack’s multi-faceted pressure in a 24-14 defeat.
“That was a disappointing game,” head coach Jim Mora said afterward. “We need to be more poised so that we do not have self-inflicted wounds.”
Joe Fagnano made a swift first impression in his UConn debut, lacing a 14-yard pass right at Cam Ross three plays in and converting on fourth down with Jelani Stafford in the backfield. Their drive still alive, Fagnano kept his electric legs moving on a 10-yard rush and a 13-yard dash down the right sideline. Positioned in the red zone on the latter run play, Victor Rosa sprinted 18 yards through the defense and into the endzone as the Huskies got on the board.
The Wolfpack entered the red zone almost immediately following the opening drive, picking up a first down and then some on each of their first two plays. Connecticut’s defense twice forced a third-down situation following those two big plays, remaining on the field when NC State converted both times on shotgun plays deep in enemy territory. Brennan Armstrong fooled everyone in attendance on the very next play, making everyone believe that UConn completed a tackle for a loss before walking into the endzone.
Brian Brewton rushed three straight times on the ensuing drive, the second of which gave the Huskies another first down, staying on the field not much longer after two consecutive overthrown Fagnano passes. Panicking on third down and taking their first timeout of the half as a result on the following drive, Connecticut’s communication miscues proved costly as Armstrong got enough yards for a first down.
Tied at seven after 15 minutes, Jackson Mitchell deflected the third-down pass as UConn got the ball back 17 ticks into the second quarter. Devontae Houston followed suit with two straight first downs, catching Fagnano’s sidearm pass on the second play as the Wolfpack’s stout defense came closing in. Getting the ball back after reading a third-down scramble, NC State slipped and juked their way into opposing territory, nearly picking up another first down as Armstrong weaved around the defense.
Stafford flattened Delbert Mimms for a two-yard loss on third down, setting up a field goal that Brayden Narveson missed wide left and giving the Huskies the ball right back. UConn went three-and-out with three total yards, setting up a momentum-shifting drive as the Wolfpack repetitively forced missed tackles for a first down. Porter Rooks hauled in Armstrong’s high throw on second down sandwiched between two misses in front of Jalen Coit’s hands, remaining out of the red zone when Eric Watts and Pryce Yates stuffed Jordan Houston.
Kicking from 41 yards out following that tackle for a loss, Narveson redeemed himself for a 10-7 NC State halftime advantage, the final score from the team’s previous meeting at Rentschler Field 11 years earlier. Opting for the second half kickoff during the coin toss, the Wolfpack’s drive started hot until Noah Plack and Donovan Branch dimmed the flame with a four-yard sack on third down. A deep pass off D. Houston’s fingertips nearly forced a second straight three-and-out for the Husky offense, instead almost becoming a demoralizing fumble and turnover. On that strange sequence of events, Fagnano lobbed a throw that James Burns lost when he collided with a running back. Payton Wilson collected the loose ball and made his way toward the red zone, losing his recorded fumble recovery when the referees ruled the toss an incomplete pass.
That turn of events seldom fazed NC State’s defense, instead getting the ball back deep in their own territory after stopping UConn’s drive in its tracks. Being pinned deep in their territory following a 58-yard punt also did not bother the Wolfpack as they swiftly marched down the field. Gaining momentum from a pass interference call and consecutive 15+ yard passes, NC State almost turned the ball over on downs when going for it three yards from the endzone. Given new life when the Huskies committed their second pass interference penalty on fourth down, the Wolfpack went ahead two scores after Mimms barreled into the endzone.
Rosa instantly re-energized the crowd following Brewton’s 29-yard kickoff return, finding a hole and cartwheeling in the endzone on a 71-yard house call. Julian Gray answered with his own deep kickoff return, obtaining 15 extra yards after the play on Isiah Davis’ late hit. Now at Connecticut’s 27, Armstrong missed multiple tackles aplenty for an eight-yard that again put NC State ahead by 10.
UConn’s offense began the fourth by continuing their drive that ended in a three-and-out, regaining possession when the defense successfully forced a turnover on downs. Joly’s six-yard reception got them out of a second straight three-and-out, but Red Hibbler’s sack and two insignificant plays abruptly halted the Huskies’ drive. Even then, the game did not get out of Connecticut’s reach until Wilson intercepted Fagnano and the Wolfpack offense subsequently ran out the clock. While defeated by 10, Mora believes this game served as a good assessment for the team and their 2023 aspirations.
“It is a very disappointed locker room, but we will bounce back,” Mora commented. “I am excited about the direction we are headed as a program.”
Travelling up north and west during the first few weeks of their last two seasons, the Huskies (0-1) head down south for their inaugural duel against the Georgia State Panthers (1-0) on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023 at 7 p.m. on ESPN+.